Malcolm and Marie Turned Out Manic and Mediocre

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Sam Levinson's new film Malcolm and Marie was created when Zendaya, who stars in the new film, asked him to write a movie when Euphoria went on break due to the public health crisis. Levinson put the script together during quarantine and shoot over the summer, making this the first film created entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The writing of the movie makes this clear, as the dialogue sounds as if it were written by someone trapped inside all day watching the world crumble on the news.

The rambling monologues and fights that Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) lose themselves in throughout the movie lost me about halfway through the 106 minute run time. Despite strong performances given by both leads, at best the film felt faux art house and at worst tedious. 

It's very difficult to write about a film that has so much to say to it's critics before we even sit down at our keyboards. The movie features primarily a fight between Malcolm, who just premiered his first feature film, and Marie, his girlfriend and inspiration for the film whom he neglected to thank in his speech. During their fight, Malcolm has a lot to say about critics who try to reduce films down to a political or racial message. Malcolm as a black creator doesn't wish to be seen as such. He dives into the miasma of separating purpose, meaning and message in films, and how it's a futile process anyway. Rather than focusing on a racial or political reading, Malcolm would rather we feel the film and the emotions it is trying to evoke. 

This may be Levinson trying to tell us how to read his movie, and how to think about what he is trying to do. A racial reading has Levinson, a white writer and director, writing at length about the experience of a black creator who's work is only seen as an extension of his race, an experience Levinson would have no first hand knowledge of. Its a good thing the characters tell us to ignore that reading of the film, otherwise it would be problematic for Levinson's authenticity (another word Malcolm tells us to ignore, and Marie tells us to pay attention to). 

In addition to flaying critics for taking an easy approach to movies, this film also focuses primarily on Malcolm and Marie's relationship, and how this relationship has influenced Malcolm's movie. Their fight is primarily about Malcolm not thanking Marie in his speech, but quickly turns into them digging up old fights and relationships, and throwing good deeds back in each other's faces. Despite some comparing these fights to a feature length Marriage Story fight, the way the fights play out the could not be more different. 

What made the climactic fight in Marriage Story interesting and emotionally resonant was that we saw what went into the fight, and felt the frustration and anger in the writing. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are screaming at each other, not finishing sentences because they're so frustrated all they can do is yell and punch a wall. This fight also completes an arc for the characters who's marriage is coming apart. Compared to the cleaned up, idealistic dialogue that we see in Malcolm and Marie, where they seem to have planned out what they were going to say ahead of time, with little of the frustration or inability to turn thoughts into words that characterize fights between partners. 

Image Courtesy of Netflix 

Despite these drawbacks, I did like the way the film was shot. I liked the long panning shots that often showed the characters through windows, or down hallways. It gave an impression that we were looking in on a private moment from the outside, and helped to sell that this was a private moment that we are privy to for some reason or another. 

Shooting in black and white was a little confusing. I first thought it was a way to trick the viewer into thinking the movie was profound, and then perhaps as a tool to illustrate a theme in the couples' fight, that they see things in black and white and miss the grey areas. Zendaya in an interview was able to clear this up, and is quoted as saying the black and white was to reclaim the era of black and white films where black actors were not present. 

Despite some great performances, I would give this movie a pass. Its attempts at being insightful are cut off at the knees with poor writing and underdeveloped themes, before we even get into the question of authenticity. In the end, I'm sure Malcolm would hate this interpretation of the film, and that can only mean that I've done a pretty good job of breaking it down. 

-Patrick Bernas