Some of the most bittersweet, beautiful moments in cinema history have come from rambling, difficult-to-watch lovers’ spats. Quarrels can illuminate the rot in a relationship, and the best films about them illustrate the fine line between love and hate, want and need.
Malcolm & Marie is not one of those films. Billed as a story of a couple’s “romantic reckoning,” the movie, streaming now on Netflix, operates more as an exercise in patience. Malcolm (played by John David Washington) is a hotshot writer-director, and Marie (Zendaya), his girlfriend and muse. The two return home after the premiere of Malcolm’s latest project, a harrowing look at a young drug addict that “knocked the audience the fuck out,” Malcolm reports, thrilled.
All night, critics have fawned over him. But in his speech, he forgot to thank Marie, whose life inspired the script, and as he dances around the house high on his success, she slinks away. “Nothing productive is going to be said tonight,” she warns him as he notices her mood and begins their fight.
She’s right: What ensues is a series of monologues, diatribes that go nowhere. He rants about her flaws, and then it’s her turn to tear him apart. On and on it goes, with the actors’ rapid-fire delivery producing nothing fiery in substance. This is not a reckoning. It’s a waste of talented stars, a stunning location, and gorgeous black-and-white photography. Made during the pandemic with a bare-bones crew, the script, from the writer and director Sam Levinson, overwhelms with its preachiness. Levinson, the creator of HBO’s Euphoria, who embarked on Malcolm & Marie with the series’ star, Zendaya, out of lockdown-induced restlessness, seems to use the titular couple as mouthpieces for a litany of his own gripes. He dissects not so much the problems with their romance, but the problems with, well, film criticism and Hollywood’s identity politics.
In one scene, Malcolm complains about how past filmmakers didn’t have to talk about whether their work had a political message, but he does. In another, he goes on a didactic tangent about why authenticity shouldn’t matter; “interpreting reality,” he argues, is the filmmaker’s job. He also picks at an old wound caused by a critic he calls “the white lady from the L.A. Times,” who panned a previous work. He bristles at her latest, positive review because she brings up his race in relation to the film’s subject. Perhaps Levinson, a white man, knew he’d be scrutinized for using a Black character to critique the role that race can play in a project’s reception. If so, his defense mechanism—having Malcolm launch into a speech about how critics shouldn’t judge a film “due to an intangible yet purely hypothetical assessment of one’s identity”—hints of self-pity.
But if Levinson misuses Washington’s talent by having the actor serve as his shield, he fares worse with Zendaya. Marie, once an aspiring actor, is relegated to talking Malcolm off his soapbox over and over, like a publicist all too aware that the pair of them are being watched. Zendaya’s natural screen presence saves some of the thin, self-conscious material. Her glares, coiled body language, and wavering tone imply more hurt than any lines in her overwritten dialogue ever do. (“I’m the last person standing,” she whimpers toward the end of the film. “If this is a movie, you hold on to me for dear fucking life.”) She even makes some of Levinson’s words work: In one scene, she envisions where Malcolm’s career might take him and the tricky discourse it could inspire—and makes the sermon sound like playful flirting.
Using a romantic relationship as the framework for interrogating the relationship between artist and critic isn’t a bad idea. But any passion-fueled tension gets steamrolled by what amounts to a debate Levinson seems to be having with himself. He appears to be frustrated with the state of his industry, and with the perceived injustices his projects have had to suffer in the past—including, yes, a white female critic from the L.A. Times panning one of his films. Malcolm & Marie is akin to watching two sentient think pieces scream at each other. The self-indulgence of the script takes up so much air, it’s a small miracle that Washington and Zendaya don’t disappear.
This isn’t to say that the complaints Malcolm articulates shouldn’t be explored. A worthwhile conversation could be had about how criticism should view art in relation to an artist’s identity, how race informs a work’s reception, and how difficult it has become at times to separate a project’s supposed message from its craft. And delving into the psyche of a character like Malcolm, a Hollywood filmmaker at the height of his success, could be valuable: Fame and ego make a potent, dangerous mix, especially for someone in the entertainment industry. But reducing it all to a monotonous back-and-forth betrays any points Levinson might have been making about the pain of being misunderstood, and the pressure that comes with being in the brightest spotlight, on the biggest stage. Maybe the writer-director should have instead done what Malcolm derides as the antithesis of filmmaking: turn the camera on, point it toward himself, and upload his screed online.