It is forever a thin line between love and hate. Is there even a line? Couple Malcolm (John David Washington) & Marie (Zendaya) come home after what should be the biggest night of both of their lives. For Malcolm, he’s just won a big award that stamps him as one of the best up and coming directors of his time, a meditative movie around race and addiction. For Marie, she’s emerged out of her own personal hell and past addiction, serving as Malcolm’s muse and who he based the movie off of. If only her boyfriend saw it the same way. He “forgot” to mention Marie during his acceptance speech.
Predictably as it should, this irks her. Passive-aggressive conversation leads into full-blown and highly explosive talks around everything and anything, be it art, who gets to criticize it, where it comes from, and of course, love itself within said art and outside of it. It’s not love if it isn’t difficult from time to time…right?
Malcolm & Marie, one of the latest Netflix releases dominating the conversation and culture, should come with a “Trigger Warning” ahead of its movie’s start. Anyone who has been in a turbulent relationship where conversations take the form of talking at rather than talking with might feel déjà vu. Little grace is found here, but there is a lot of passion. Somewhat misguided passion, but passion, nonetheless. There’s power and a craft in creating something this divisive.
The person behind the crafting of this divisive work is writer/director Sam Levinson, the man behind the equally divisive Assassination Nation, a film that made no qualms about how mature it was and how many genres it housed in the first 5-10 minutes of runtime. His effort this go-around is a bit more reeled in, only from the sense that he’s content in working in fewer genres. Shot in black-and-white, Malcolm & Marie’s aesthetic does come across as timeless (paired with an older sounding score from Labrinth), and it is really hard to see this shot in color, with or without COVID influencing production. Featuring only two thespians, Levinson doesn’t use that as an excuse for back-and-forth, A-B shooting. He mixes it up quite frequently to display shifting power dynamics, intensity of the specific argument, etc. There is definitely a noted style and precision.
Direction isn’t the point of contention in Malcolm & Marie. The point of contention is the dialogue, oscillating between philosophically interesting musings on love/duty and indulgent ruminations on who gets to criticize art from two people who aren’t so much people, but vessels for Levinson to air our his grievances on the industry he works in. Toxic as it is, the “straight” love story/lack thereof manages to be the stronger part of the movie’s script, giving me some vibes of the portion of Nocturnal Animals that wasn’t fictional. As Levinson keeps going to the well of “reviewer who is unabashedly wrong on their take of Malcolm’s film,” that is when his feature is at the worst, using a monologue by Washington that is not only agonizing in length, but all-around unintelligible.
That said, having your only two cast members as high-rising stars in Hollywood covers for a lot of writing issues and dialogue clunkiness. Zendaya is entirely believable in what amounts to her first truly mature (i.e. a person not a teenager) role, one that sees her more restrained than Washington. Due mainly to how his character is written, JDW seems to channel his inner Kanye West in spaces, aggro sometimes to the nth degree. But the movie flourishes the most when the two stars, dialed down to five, are just allowed to talk without all the histrionics attached.
While it is not the easiest film to sit down with, seeing Malcom & Marie as just a shouting match minimizes the rest of the quality aspects on hand. Probably in need of a chill pill more so than extra-positive words, maybe age will mellow out its still young writer/director.
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