Malcolm & Marie Review

Malcolm & Marie
After the successful premiere of his new movie, up-and-coming filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) return home to celebrate. But when long-simmering tensions in their relationship rise to the surface, they instead have a no-holds-barred argument that tests the strength of their bond.

by Amon Warmann |
Published on
Release Date:

05 Feb 2021

Original Title:

Malcolm & Marie

The worldwide pandemic has given rise to some innovative filmmaking. Host gave our new Zoom-call reality a terrifying twist. Locked Down set a jewellery heist during Covid-19 restrictions. And while Malcolm & Marie doesn’t take place in a pandemic world, that it was shot during lockdown with just a 22-person crew means it was a big factor in its conception. It also speaks directly to what many have been facing these past few months — being isolated at home in relationships that are under threat thanks to constant interrogation. Writer-director Sam Levinson has fashioned an intimate drama that gives us front-row seats to a couple going through exactly that. Thanks in no small part to two powerhouse performances, it makes for an utterly absorbing ride.

It all stems from something that, at least for one member of the couple, at first seems pretty innocuous. When a high-off-success Malcolm (John David Washington) returns home after the premiere of his new movie, all he wants to do is celebrate with his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya). But it soon becomes apparent that she’s stewing about something. After having thanked his agents, his actors and his collaborators, Malcolm forgot to thank his long-time girlfriend while on stage. To him it was a small mistake that’s not worth dwelling on, but this misstep becomes the impetus for unpacking the good, the bad and the ugly of their entire relationship, with each intent on winning the constantly escalating argument.

Malcolm & Marie

It would have been easy for Malcolm & Marie to devolve into a repetitive shout-a-thon, but the rhythm and pacing of the rapid-fire dialogue is pitch-perfect. The vicious verbal haymakers are precisely calibrated, and you never quite know where it’s going next or who will go too far first. It’s all in the service of exploring what each partner wants and needs from their significant other, be it respect, appreciation or forgiveness. At times this almost feels like an ode to the work of American indie pioneer John Cassavetes, whose seminal 1968 film Faces — which focuses on a marriage on the rocks — also placed an emphasis on performance and melded scripted dialogue with improvisation to searing results.

Levinson’s screenplay is also not afraid to get meta. A terrific early sequence sees Marie put on a ‘white voice’ as she teases Malcolm about the success of his hypothetical LEGO Movie to sweet and comedic effect, while another scene has a lot to say about the art of criticism, and how big a role identity and race should play in it. The fact that Levinson (the son of director Barry Levinson) is a white filmmaker, directing a film with two sole Black stars, makes the decision to introduce topical issues about Black creatives navigating white Hollywood to the fore ballsy. It works, though, because it’s done with a truthfulness that feels borne out of many real-life conversations.

There are moments when the spell is temporarily broken and the dialogue sounds less naturalistic and more writerly. One especially glaring soliloquy sees Malcolm use words like “solipsistic” when he’s dressing down his other half. But even in those moments where the writing doesn’t quite satisfy, Malcolm & Marie is always gorgeous to look at. In addition to taking place in the nicest movie house this side of Parasite, the decision to film in black and white lends the movie a timeless feel. Marcell Rév’s energetic camerawork does well to put us in each character’s headspace, often with intense close-ups that linger with purpose.

It’s almost impossible to take your eyes off Zendaya as she navigates sharp tonal turns with ease.

The music is similarly pivotal. Labrinth’s delicate jazz score is full of moody trumpets and light drums, and it meshes perfectly with the cleverly selected needle drops. Tracks like William Bell’s ‘I Forgot to Be Your Lover’ and Dionne Warwick’s ‘Get Rid Of Him’ are baked into the film, doing the talking when the characters can’t.

This would count for little if the performances weren’t up to the challenge, but thankfully they are. From the moment Washington first starts shimmying to James Brown’s ‘Down And Out In New York City’ in the film’s opening minutes, he exudes movie star charisma. That magnetism was evident in BlacKkKlansman and Tenet, but here he gets to flex more of his repertoire in a full-bodied performance that veers from visceral to sensitive.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when Malcolm is fighting entirely with himself, almost going hoarse as he rages over a positive review of his movie in the LA Times to a bemused Marie (the frustration over having to first overcome the paywall on the website to read the review is a wonderfully relatable touch). Not only does Washington attack this monologue and others with passion and zeal, he continually finds little pockets of humour amidst the anger and exhaustion. It’s the best performance 
of a career that continues to impress.

If Washington is the George Foreman of this heavyweight bout, then Zendaya is Muhammad Ali. Fans of HBO’s Euphoria — another Levinson/Zendaya collaboration — had glimpses of what she is capable of, but she takes it to another level here in a raw and vulnerable performance that runs the full gamut of emotions from indifference to flagrant disgust. Her expressive face captures it all, and it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off her as she navigates sharp tonal turns with ease.

The best example of this comes in the movie’s finest moment, which sees Marie ‘audition’ for a role she thinks should have been hers. It’s a testament to how convincing she is that Malcolm is not the only one caught under her spell. It’s a performance that confirms her graduation to leading-role status. And through it all, Zendaya and Washington exhibit that you-know-it-when-you-see-it chemistry that is so evident in all the great romantic dramas. The age gap between the actors may be a concern for some going into the movie, but when the two leads are this good together it quickly becomes a non-issue.

The performances alone make Malcolm & Marie a special movie, but with an endlessly impressive screenplay in addition to its beautiful aesthetics — on a visual and audial level — there’s plenty in its corner. If necessity is the mother of invention, then Levinson’s latest is one of the most creative responses to these strange, restricted times yet. Whether you’re still rooting for the couple or not once the credits roll, by the time they’re done fighting you’ll be exhausted. But there’s a good chance you’ll want to dive right back into their drama too.

Zendaya and John David Washington deliver career-best performances in this mesmerising two-hander that ruminates on love, life and art.
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