Director: Sam Levinson | Screenwriter: Sam Levinson | Cast: Zendaya, John David Washington | Distributor: Netflix | Running Time: 106 min. | MPAA Rating: R
There’s a jarring aspect to Malcolm & Marie being an artsy bottle picture of a bickering couple while also being a commentary on film and film criticism. The titular couple find themselves arguing with each other about being messy human beings while trying to show passion for their work. The final result is a sloppy mixed bag of surreal monologues that drag on to the point of exhaustion.
Malcolm (John David Washington) has just returned from his big premiere with his wife Marie (Zendaya). Malcolm is ecstatic while Marie is tired and weary, wanting to eat and go to sleep. Though Malcolm is in the mood to talk about his success, Marie is in no mood to inflate his ego, casually pointing out the hypocrisy in his late-night ramblings. She’s tired not just of the day but his ranting and ramblings that often trail off into hypocritical statements. He states he’s not some elite educated jerk or beholden to such bill-paying scrips. Marie passive-aggressively asserts that he’s that he is well educated and is working on commercial projects. His reasoning is that he’s better for not being as smug about it.
The two bicker throughout the night for different reasons. Malcolm desparately wants to bite back on his critics as the reviews roll in, arguing that he’s more than just some black director bound to only make films about racism and class struggle. Marie wants to be acknowledged as an actor despite having some strong mental hangups that prevents her from going far. They clash the entire night in scenes where they make-out, fight, laugh, rinse and reapeat.
Many of the scenes between them always contain a certain amount of awkwardness and a dash of cringe for a variety of reasons. There’s a scene where Marie starts making Malcolm macaroni & cheese once they get home and Malcolm proceeds to eat her butt, while she seems more interested in which butter Malcolm wants more than anything else. He’ll later eat mac & cheese while bickering with Marie from across the room, her fury rising when realizing Malcolm got a second bowl mid-point. Though mostly a back-and-forth, the bulk of the ranting is all on Washington, almost to the point where I expected he’d declare himself the protagonist ala Tenet.
A film like this is incredibly meta for how much it demands the viewer to take a closer look at how they perceive films, walking a tightrope of critics being pretentious and filmmakers also being pretentious. Such ambition fluctuates wildly between something insightful and something that just doesn’t hit the right note. There’s a scene where Washington starts talking about the importance of the best films that have stood the test of time and it’s mostly just the character showcasing his knowledge of the Criterion collection. It’s a scene that’s exceptionally hard to watch when realizing that this kinda writing reads like Ready Player One for film nerds. Remember that part of the book that just lists pop culture things as though each reference makes you seem more powerful? It’s that same level of cringe the way Washington rattles off movie trivia. Worth noting is that this scene is initially written to be inspiring the way Marie’s smile slowly forms.
Malcolm & Marie has the same anxiety to watch as the feuding couple feels living with each other. The highs come close to touching on something profound about relationships and films but the lows are incredibly hard to watch at times. Rarely, however, does it ever pierce through into something meaningful, settling for the artsy black-and-white film of a couple arguing. For as much as the film wants to comment on convention, it stays firmly in its lane, reserving a few choice words to appear as something more ambitious than it really appears.