• Nate Adams

Zendaya and John David Washington can’t untangle messy 'Malcolm & Marie'


Courtesy of Netflix

The scene is set, we’re in Malibu on a warm summer night, and two lovebirds have just come home from a lavish, much buzzed about movie premiere and the film’s director, Malcolm (John David Washington) is ecstatic. Folks are claiming he’s the next “Barry Jenkins” or “Spike Lee,” all while James Browns’ “Down and Out in New York City” is blasting in the background. So begins Sam Levinson’s gorgeously shot, crisp black-and-white two hander “Malcolm & Marie,” which takes place in one central location where both characters can’t stop hurling insults and badgering egos in a lengthy, “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” style presentation. After about the first thirty minutes, it becomes tiresome and hard to untangle.


You can tell Levinson (“Assination Nation” and the creator of “Euphoria”) poured much of his own experience into the screenplay, tackling everything from “woke” critics trying to make films political, and a hilarious rant about newspapers requiring paywalls to read content. Big words are thrown around and characters chew up one take monologues like yesterday’s breakfast, yet beneath all the chatter lies a hollow foundation. You can only take so much of people screaming and berating until it’s hard to root for their success let alone believe they’ve stayed together this long.


After Malcolm comes home and is relishing in his success - the camera tracks him consistently - we see a glimpse of Marie (Zendaya) rushing to the bathroom and then scurrying outside to smoke a cigarette. Clearly, the enthusiasm of the night is one sided. She just wants to make some damn Mac and Cheese and go to bed. But Malcolm can sense the tension, and so begins what Marie will later call the worst fight of their lives. He forgot to thank her in his acceptance speech before the premiere, a prevalent issue considering her life as a young drug addict was the inspiration for his picture.


Written and shot over two weeks last summer with strict COVID precautions, “Malcolm & Marie” has an amateurish feeling. Filmed at the Caterpillar House in Carmel by the incredible Marcell Rev, it represents an aura of success for the couple and stylish rooms eventually take on a life of their own. It’s the perfect location for these characters to stumble into following what Malcolm deems the most consequential night of his career before things go south.


The framework for the initial argument is a decent one, and Zendaya will see an awards push for her fractured portrayal of a woman constantly living in her husband’s shadow, but Marie is never afraid to remind Malcolm of his privilege, and they spar about their recollections of how the movie was made. She’s convinced the movie was better because of their relationship and though he eventually agrees (after some hand wrangling) Malcolm goes off about the need to make every minor inconvenience about her.


It’s the type of push and pull strategy that plateaus constantly. Just as soon the two make a truce, it’s not even two minutes before the flames ignite again. There’s quiet moments where Malcolm and Marie sit outside and reminisce about their appreciation for each other, and the words: “I love you” get tossed around, but it feels like Levinson is pandering to the audience. Stuck on a loop of mindless jargon and endless monologuing that fails to connect. One grand-slam moment in particular sees Washington riffing for six uniterurrpted minutes about the LA Times film critic bringing race and politics into their review. Credit to Washington who is a beast of a performer, but the self-indulgent screenplay gives little from him to break away from, nor does it keep the audience invested in what’s going on. Hell, I don’t even think Marie cared about his rant. Speaking of Marie, Zendaya is exceptionally sharp, conveying a wide array of emotions about her characters’ fears and neglect, who is doing the most with her screen time, but even she can’t unravel this 105 minute slug fest.


It’s easy to appreciate how earnestly “Malcolm & Marie” was put together under tough circumstances when most productions in LA were shut down. Even in the film's harshest moments, it’s still beautiful to watch and the characters walk with a swagger that complements what Levinson wanted to create. “Malcolm & Marie” will alienate viewers and reward others who feel secluded at home, but this is a classic case of where the characters should really take their own advice, set aside their differences and listen to what the other is saying.


Grade: C-


MALCOLM & MARIE opens in select theaters Friday, January 29th and debuts on Netflix Friday, February 5th