A writer/director and his girlfriend come home from his successful movie premiere. He couldn’t be more excited; pacing around, ranting about how brilliant the critics think he is. She is calm, quiet; standing outside for a smoke before coming in to make mac and cheese. When he’s done congratulating himself, she asks him why he didn’t thank her in his speech tonight? That sets up a long night of arguing, celebrating, personal attacks and declarations of love.
The black-and-white drama Malcolm & Marie (streaming on Netflix) doesn’t have anything more to it than that. It was filmed in two weeks during the pandemic, so obviously options were limited. Two actors, one location, one extended conversation about their relationship. They move from the kitchen to the living room to the bathroom to the bedroom, all the while ruminating on subjects like his art, her past, his narcissism, her neediness, etc. The first scene, where he monologues as she coolly watches him, then she questions him and they start firing shots at each other, is really good. The rest of the movie is a repeat of the same argument, with slightly different spins on the same personal attacks.
A few of the speeches land well enough, but it all gets exhausting after a while, not in a good way. It becomes clear the characters don’t have much to add to what they said at the start of the conversation. They just reiterate it in articulate ways. Yet, Malcolm & Marie still kind of works at times. That is due entirely to the passion brought to it via the strong performances by John David Washington and Zendaya.
The movie’s problems don’t come from its limitations. It doesn’t feel stagey. Writer/director Sam Levinson and his team don’t have an issue making this cinematic. Nor does it come from Malcolm’s attacks on film critics (that is what the majority of the critical discussion about the movie has been centered on), which bring up some interesting points, despite being (intentionally, I think) arrogant and self-indulgent. No, my main complaint is that after the first scene, the screenplay doesn’t have a whole lot more to say about their relationship or art or anything really. At approximately the halfway mark, I began to think that this could’ve made an excellent twenty to thirty minute short. At an hour and forty-five minutes? To paraphrase Marie following an especially vicious verbal assault from Malcolm: “You could have won with twenty percent of that.”
However, Zendaya and Washington are able to survive. Even though their characters may be circling the same material ad nauseum, the actors never stop being entertaining. They do awards-worthy work at the beginning. Washington’s first speech, not just the words, but the way he moves and the look on his face, projects pride, confidence, condescension and total self-absorption. Everything about the way Zendaya listens to him suggests she is only sort of paying attention and can’t wait for him to finish talking. Then she carefully and angrily throws it back in his face, trying and failing to keep the emotions she’s feeling from overwhelming her. It’s compelling stuff that kept me entertained, even as Malcolm & Marie proved it had nothing more to give them. Two great performances can only carry a paper-thin script so far.
3 out of 5
John David Washington as Malcolm
Zendaya as Marie
Written and Directed by Sam Levinson