When Nate sent in his review yesterday, I (Sasha) replied, “one sentence take?” He responded, “Incredible performances weighed down by (but ultimately I think transcending) a clunky (debatably problematic?) script. And super beautiful. And Zendaya’s house is hella nice.” Okay then! Let’s dive in.
Spoilers abound for Malcolm & Marie below. You’ve been warned!
Fifteen minutes into Malcolm & Marie, John David Washington eats mac & cheese. Between furious stabs into the bowl, we see him first mull a half-formed defense against his partner (who has already left the room), then the bones of his counterattack, until finally, settling on the right turn of phrase, he shouts with a mouthful of noodles to her from across the house: “y’know Marie, you are genuinely unstable!”
Malcolm & Marie is a movie that thrives in moments like this; the breaks between rounds of the titular characters’ night-spanning argument, when the camera narrows its focus onto the mechanics of their protracted conflict. Starring Zendaya and John David Washington, and written/directed by Sam Levinson (of Euphoria fame/Assassination Nation semi-infamy), it’s an aesthetically beautiful film that, at its best, gives room for its two leads to deliver a layered, charisma-soaked study of a relationship in turmoil, but all too often derails itself with an at-once undercooked and overwritten script.
The driving narrative of Malcolm & Marie is a simple one: a former(ish)-actor and her film-directing partner return from the premiere of the filmmaker’s new movie, during which his failure to thank her in his speech unearths a deeper well of resentment in their partnership. From jump, Marie and Malcolm are not on the same page, with the former clearly frustrated as she enters the house and makes a b-line for the bathroom, and the latter riding high off the audience response and dancing an impromptu choreography across the spacious Malibu home to “Down & Out in New York City” (one of the signature visual sequences in the film).
Things predictably devolve from there, with a series of revelations rising to the surface and reframing their discourse: first, that the basis of the film was (at least in part) Marie’s own life experience; then that they had once planned for her to star in the role before Malcolm took the project in another direction; then of the broader pattern of abuse and infidelity pervading their relationship from the outset. In between (or at moments, simultaneously), the two reckon with the critical reception to Malcolm’s film and debate the nature of film criticism and creativity writ-large.
Levinson is a brilliant visual storyteller. Even the film’s showiest cinematic moments (the aforementioned opening dance sequence, the backlit search around the tree grove near the midway point, or the mirror sequence at the close all come to mind) feel either intertwined with the narrative, earned by their beauty alone or both. The same skill was on display regularly through the first season of Euphoria (also starring Zendaya, and also beautifully shot by cinematographer Marcel Rév). But in that case, the visual flourishes felt seamlessly enmeshed with the naturalism of the dialogue, rather than being weighed down by it.
Here, the use of the metaphorical pen does not feel so seamless. There are moments when (despite valiant efforts from both leads) you can hear Levinson’s writing strain for the perfect phrase to encapsulate the perfect thought. The most frustrating of these moments are the ones in which he manages to capture the idea in question, only to continue writing; a frantic gesture to his audience to make sure we got the point. “I feel like once you know someone is there for you, and that they actually love you, you never actually think of them again,” Marie jabs at Malcolm, revealing so many layers of their relationship with such a simple and direct line. But before we have a moment to unpack them for ourselves, Levinson pushes her forward into cliché: “It’s not until you’re about to lose someone that you actually pay attention.” He writes the line, then overwrites it, not trusting enough in his audience (or his performers, for that matter) to get the point without the additional exposition.
Not every misstep is dialogue-driven: in the wake of another vicious bout, Malcolm exits the bedroom (their third battleground of the evening), leaving Marie framed on the bed through the door, all the anguish of her partner’s assault playing across her face. It’s a beautiful and compelling moment of quiet physicality (and a testament to Zendaya’s skill as a performer), interrupted moments later when she drops her head into her hands, a universally acknowledged pantomime of the emotion she was already so effectively displaying.
Perhaps, were the performances less compelling, these directorial stumbles would shout a little less loudly. But given how much Zendaya can tell us lying silently on a living room floor, or Washington shifting his posture as his partner forces him to confront the impact of his ego, these moments of more ham-fisted info-and-emotional exposition feel not only cliché but jarringly superfluous.
Beyond its less-refined scripted moments, there is an overt (and often distracting) meta-ness that permeates the movie, most especially when film or film criticism is being explicitly discussed. Seen in the best light, this is indicative of a writer reckoning with the complexities of identity and ownership as they intertwine with creation. Through a more cynical lens, it reads as a deliberate attempt by a hyper-conscience filmmaker to cut his critics off at the pass (“I mean, these people, these fucking people are so pedantic! They are! I mean, we get it, you’re smart, we get it, you’re woke, we get it we get it, we get it, let us, us artists, have some fucking fun with this shit! Let’s have fun with the art!” Malcolm shouts—definitely at me—in the film’s opening sequence).
My inclination on first watch was to assume the latter. When Malcolm delivered an expansive monologue lambasting the need of all critics to frame a film by a black director as political, asserting instead that to analyze purely on the basis of the identity of the creator is a reductive approach, it felt impossible to avoid the fact that the person who wrote those words was a white filmmaker; one who, by those metrics, should be insulated from critiques over the role his identity plays in writing for a cast of black actors.
(Equally inescapable is the irony of a white writer litigating the merits of a white filmmaker writing for a cast of black actors; but given the centrality of intersectional identity and creativity to the story of Malcolm & Marie, it seems negligent to leave such concerns unacknowledged.)
Levinson, for his part, seems both aware of his inability to fully capture the experience of his protagonists (shouts to the expanded Tenet universe), and at the same time trusting that his collaboration with Zendaya and Washington (both heavily involved in the editing and revision process, though neither are credited) ensured that any missteps would be corrected. In a recent interview with Esquire UK, he explained:
“…I have faith in the collaborative process and in my partners that if I write something that doesn’t feel true, that JD or Z don’t respond to or feel to be honest, that they are going to say something and we’ll work it out. I didn’t have anxiety in that sense because I have too much respect for the collaborative nature of filmmaking…There’s certain things that I’m not going to get 100-percent right about what it feels to be a Black creative, but what I can do is write what feels true to the character and have faith in the collaborative process of filmmaking.” (Esquire UK)
Zendaya has since echoed similar sentiments about their collaborative efforts, and any analysis of the script should necessarily account for the participation of the two leads. But in between laughs at the pinnacle of Malcolm’s diatribe towards “that white lady critic from the LA Times” (“Fuck you for inhibiting the ability of artists to dream about what life may be like for other fucking people. Fuck you! Twice! With a sick cactus dick!”), there lingers a concern that Levinson may be less invested in the lives of other fucking people and more that he be allowed to dream about them.
Ultimately, it is on the back of Zendaya and Washington’s genuinely brilliant performances that Malcolm & Marie is elevated above the fumblings in its script. Washington’s performance in particular dances the edge of hilarity and cruelty, a line a less gifted performer may have toppled to the wrong side of and left us with a performance either too tempered to capture Malcolm’s menace, or too bombastic to care about the emotional turmoil behind his attacks. He is, in Marie’s words, “an emotional fucking terrorist,” brutalizing and eviscerating his partner with calculated strikes; but only after we’ve seen him at his most physically unhinged, pantomiming violence alone in the yard, refining that lack of control into sharp-edged blades to quietly destroy her when he returns as if, in a fit of Sorkineese, the perfect words simply came to him.
This, for all its missteps, is the magic of Malcolm & Marie. By narrowing its focus to this one evening, this one house, this one fight, these two people, and by stretching those limitations across the two-hour runtime, Levinson (and via their transportive performances, Zendaya and Washington) afford us the opportunity to see the full spectrum of a relationship in disarray.
Not simply the well-oiled monologuing of Sorkin drama, and not simply the naturalistic scripting of a Baumbach film (“recreating reality doesn’t make something interesting, it’s about your interpretation of reality, what you feel about reality, how you convey about reality, what you reveal about reality”), but the shifting momentum and the moments in-between: when a fight quiets and tilts to a wary truce (Malcolm’s hilarious delivery of “ok…are we…no longer fighting?”), or when the comfort in the wake of that truce opens the door to a new misstep, a new wire tripped a stumble back into conflict (Marie’s reaction to Malcolm’s misguided apology-via-song, telegraphed with such care from her body language before we’re enlightened to the context). With meticulous, near claustrophobic attention to the full arc of this fight, Levinson and his cast offer us a more honest, more complete, and ultimately more compelling portrayal of an inherently performative relationship than I have seen displayed on screen in some time.
For that alone (or, if it’s your thing, the inevitable discourse already swirling around it), the film is well worth the watch.
But on the other hand, in the wise words of Malcolm Elliot: “Fuck these lazy-ass critics.”
Malcolm & Marie is available to stream now on Netflix.