Malcolm & Marie movie review: Zendaya, John David Washington fall prey to pent-up passions

John David Washington's Malcolm talks about how “cinema doesn’t need to have a message, it needs to have a heart and electricity.” Malcolm & Marie has some version of all three, but still leaves you oddly unaffected.

Prahlad Srihari February 06, 2021 10:04:03 IST

2.5/5

Going back all the way to Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950), critics have often been villainised in cinema, portrayed as self-absorbed failed artists harbouring some hidden agenda when they lay down a harsh verdict. They're seldom shown as creatives who feel privileged and thrilled that they get to do what they do for a living. The tradition of critics being turned into targets of criticism continues in Malcolm & Marie. The woes of the film's protagonist, and by proxy its director Sam Levinson, bring to mind Noel Coward's quip: “I can take any amount of criticism as long as it is unqualified praise.” If unqualified praise is all Levinson wishes, he shouldn’t read any further.

Returning home from a rousing reception to the premiere of his latest film, Malcolm (John David Washington) now turns his attention to the reviews from critics. He's bullish though. He puts on some James Brown, fixes himself a drink, and dances around the living room in his slim-cut tux. Cooking mac 'n' cheese for him in her shimmering gown is his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya), who doesn't quite share his celebratory mood. Captured in gin-clear black-and-white, the glassy exteriors and the textured interiors of the luxurious house all lend themselves well to the drama about to unfold. Though the couple are confined to a single location, there is a great distance between them. When he's ranting in the living room, she stands outside in the terrace and smokes. Even when they're in the same room, there's a noticeable distance.

Malcolm  Marie movie review Zendaya John David Washington fall prey to pentup passions

A still from Malcolm & Marie

What's troubling Marie is Malcolm forgot to thank her in his speech. This oversight is a bone of contention, but to get to the heart of their crisis will require them to peel off a lot more layers of their relationship. It sets the stage for all the unspoken disagreements and bitterness that have stockpiled over its course. Their bubble swells to bursting in a game of seduction. Both launch into lengthy monologues to make their case to the opposition. With the camera glued to their faces, it's like they're trying to convince us too.

Levinson plays it cleverly, teasing us with scraps of information about their past. When we pick them up, it recontextualises their relationship each time. On occasion, arguments are interrupted by short, tender moments of reconciliation and make-out sessions. The camera is an invasive presence, always there to capture their private reactions as they run through a gamut of emotions. Levinson lets us observe like voyeurs peering through a window. Though it's set like a chamber piece, the agile movement of the tracking shots render it entirely cinematic.

Malcolm's new film is about a 20-year-old woman struggling with drug abuse. Marie insists he drew from her own experiences as an addict, yet never so much as acknowledged he did. Malcolm argues the character is a composite based on all the women from his past. This snowballs into an argument about artistic collaboration, the purpose of filmmaking, and the desire for authenticity.

Malcolm  Marie movie review Zendaya John David Washington fall prey to pentup passions

A still from Malcolm & Marie

In a film with a lot of talk about authenticity, it is hard to overlook the artificial eloquence of the dialogue, and the contrivance that is Malcolm and Marie's dispute. Over the course of the night, the inventory builds with arguments over Malcolm's biggest pet peeve: film criticism. He hits out at contemporary film discourse which lets identity politics get in the way of assessment, singling out a “white lady critic from the Los Angeles Times.” Citing examples of George Cukor empathising with women and Elaine May being fascinated by emotionally stunted men, he shouts an entire op-ed to prove his point.

Malcolm’s criticism extends to other white critics like her who compare him only to Black filmmakers like Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins, when he believes William Wyler would be a more fitting point of reference. When reviews for his film finally drop, it is interesting to note that Malcolm is in fact just as outraged by a positive review from the aforementioned "white lady critic." Because he doesn't believe she understood his film at all. Though she calls the film a "genuine masterwork," he is as enraged over her misidentification of shots and lenses as he is by her assessment of the film through a political lens. This nameless and faceless presence virtually becomes a third character in this two-hander.

Moreover, you get the feeling Levinson is using a Black filmmaker as a mouthpiece to counteract exactly the kind of criticism he detests. Marie, on the other hand, is a counterpuntal superego to cover all viewpoints. When Marie talks about how Malcolm sexualises the trauma of his female protagonist, and how the film could have benefited from a female gaze, it feels like Levinson trying to protect himself against criticism of his own work.

Malcolm  Marie movie review Zendaya John David Washington fall prey to pentup passions

A still from Malcolm & Marie

Indeed, the film is far more perceptive when it focuses on Marie. Through her POV, the night becomes a dissection of a toxic relationship. Tired of being neglected and taken for granted, she calls him out every time he's being an "asshole." She does it when he complains about reviews that haven't yet been written. When he asserts, “not everything I do is political because I'm Black,” she reminds him his next project is an Angela Davis biopic. When he's called out however, he defaults to his spiteful self. This becomes clear when he uses details from Marie's traumatic past against her. Washington plays a man whose narcissism belies his insecurities. But in a monologue-heavy two-hander, it is Zendaya's silences that speak louder than words. Her Marie can disconcert Malcolm with a mere grimace, a raised eyebrow or a quivering lip.

In one of his endless rants, Malcolm talks about how “cinema doesn’t need to have a message, it needs to have a heart and electricity.” Malcolm & Marie has some version of all three, but still leaves you oddly unaffected. With all its condemnations and protests spelt out and screamed, it lacks that "what-if factor" Marie describes.

So you have to ask: What if Malcolm & Marie was simply a vehicle for Zendaya and John David Washington to show off their acting chops, not a vehicle for Levinson to air his grievances too?

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Malcolm & Marie is now streaming on Netflix

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