REEL Review – Malcolm & Marie (2021)

Director: Sam Levinson | 1h 46mins | Drama

Film director Malcolm (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) come home from the premiere of Malcolm’s latest film. As Marie airs a grievance she has about Malcolm’s speech, the night turns into a verbal sparring match between the two.

Sam Levinson’s latest film feels possible because of the current state of the world we are in. A pandemic-made film about two people, Malcolm and Marie, throwing emotional and verbal blows as they dissect each other and their relationship. A neat idea for a film that in execution finds room to explore every inch of the characters it’s put in front of us – but it’s Levinson’s strive for consistency that can’t help but feel like repetitiveness. 

Malcolm, played by John David Washington, is a film director fresh off a drama about a girl getting clean and after a glowing reception at the premiere he discovers his girlfriend, Marie, has a problem with something. She’s mad because he didn’t thank her in his speech, despite the film being about her life, and she isn’t shy about telling him. This setup is wonderfully executed, the writing is fierce and the glossy black and white cinematography locks us into a false sense of style while counter acting it with such raw discussions. But, the film feels more like a mouthpiece for Levinson’s own venting, and by the time it gets past the first round of fighting you can’t help but feel the film’s pace becomes stagnant. 

The film dissects film criticism, authorship and artistic inspiration while channeling them through it’s very insecure main character. In particular, Malcolm has a problem with an LA Times journalist that he accuses of ‘flexing’ her College degree in order to create pros that just aren’t there. He believes that film is a bigger conversation, and that just because Malcolm is black it doesn’t make his film a political message or a commentary – in his words he just wants to make “a movie about a girl getting clean”. Which is understandable – a lot of Levinson’s grievances are logical – but it’s in the execution that they become lost. Making for a film that escalates in fiery monologues but never really grows in it’s message.

Fresh off Euphoria (2019-) Zendaya was always going to attract fresher roles in drama, and in Malcolm & Marie she’s the heart and soul of the film’s passionate tone. 

As the film goes on both Malcolm and Marie get more and more direct with their speeches, they take it in turns delivering bold monologues that cut deeper and deeper into each other. A film with such a methodical twist in emotion and limited characters can be quite demanding for an actor, but luckily both Washington and Zendaya are wonderful in their roles. In fact, despite the air of grievances that the director is channeling, this really does feel like a performance piece more so than anything else. 

Washington is both charming and pretentious (whether or not the character is meant to seem pretentious is up for debate), and he’s able to change from charming to vulgar in the flick of the switch. However, the film feels much more emphatic because of Zendaya’s performance, an actress that elevates the emotional core beautifully all while oozing charisma as she fills the screen with immaculate poise and star-powered presence. Fresh off Euphoria (2019-) Zendaya was always going to attract fresher roles in drama, and in Malcolm & Marie she’s the heart and soul of the film’s passionate tone. 

If you see Malcolm & Marie as nothing but a canvas in which it’s performers can shine then it succeeds. Both Washington and Zendaya are fantastic with such a talky and demanding script and the cinematography gorgeously shifts the film’s mood and style. But it’s Levinson’s own venting that brings down this film – and I may very well be falling for the trap that the film sets for all critics, but as Malcolm pretentiously harps on about ‘authenticity’, you can’t help but feel that’s exactly what the film is missing. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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