Synopsis: A filmmaker and his girlfriend return home from his movie premiere where smoldering tensions and painful revelations push them toward a romantic reckoning.
Stars: Zendaya, John David Washington
Director: Sam Levinson
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: As an only child, there were plenty of times growing up when I had “opportunities” to learn from my “mistakes” and much of these lessons were in how my words were received to others. My parents, like many of yours, were fond of the phrase ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.’ and that’s a motto I’ve tried to stick with through the years, to varying degrees of success. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Meaning, sometimes even though you think you’re saying the right thing, you aren’t sincere, and it shows. Still…words matter and even removing a passive aggressive delivery can’t hide the fact that you just said something you ought to be taken to task for. Flipped around, ‘It’s not how you say it, it’s what you say.”
That’s what I thought while watching the new Netflix film Malcolm & Marie, which has become a bit of a hot button topic of conversation in the movie world thanks to its dissection of film and film criticism during an eventful two hours. Made over the summer when COVID-19 was in full swing, the project gained some attention because of its two in-demand stars and the way they came together to not only fund the project but see that it was carried out under strict health guidelines. The small crew huddled together in quarantine for two weeks before shooting and many had multiple jobs on the set. It was clearly a labor of love by committed artists that cared deeply not only for telling the story but for finding an outlet of creativity during this strange time.
I’d like to report, then, that Malcolm & Marie was worth the time and effort but unfortunately, it’s ever so slightly the talky drab dud I feared it would be. It’s strange, though, because I didn’t regret a minute of the film. Watching stars John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) and Zendaya (The Greatest Showman) bicker, make-up, fight, and emotionally evade one another throughout a stunning house in Carmel, California in glorious black and white was a rich experience. There are a few scenes that are truly beautiful to behold and as a whole the film is never, absolutely never, boring to look at. It’s just when we start to delve deeply into writer/director Sam Levinson’s annoyingly pugilistic screenplay that you’ll want to reach for the mute button.
Arriving home after the premiere of his new film, Malcolm (Washington) is energized but what he feels will finally get him noticed by mainstream audiences. His past films have only been seen as genre fare (read: black) and he longs to be considered with some of the greats and not just his fellow respected black filmmakers. For now, though, he’s on cloud 9 and with drink in hand and James Brown playing throughout the house he’s dancing while Marie (Zendaya) is clearly feeling something a little different after their night out. A harmless mistake before the premiere, likely brought on by the energy of the evening has been eating away at her and she can’t let it go.
Cooking macaroni and cheese (there’s no promotional tie-in here but if you’re watching this late at night you’ll definitely wind up wanting a bowl of your own) she lays out her grievances and it only slides downhill from there. The two battle over their thoughts of Marie’s perception of the mistake (a sleight of attribution on Malcolm’s part) and, eventually, on Marie’s overall contribution to their marriage and Malcolm’s professional endeavors. Did Malcolm steal pieces of Marie’s life to make his latest success and if so, why didn’t he cast his actress girlfriend in the role that could have helped her career advance as way of repaying the support she’s offered him? As most fights go, there are low blows and then jabs that hit even darker places that couples don’t easily bounce back from.
The centerpiece of Malcolm & Marie, however, doesn’t even involve Marie and it almost seems like Levinson has been building to this point throughout. It’s a profanity-laced diatribe from Malcolm on the state of film and the critics that review it that goes on and on and on, an endless barrage of holier-than-thou observances and notations of a century worth of filmmakers. Though slanted through the viewfinder of a black man, you can clearly hear Levinson’s voice on the other side and how it’s transparently leveled at all naysayers that may take an opposing view to the film. Feeling like a way Levinson can say what he wants to say but not really “say” it, the whole speech comes off as a cheap shot and poor sportsmanship…though Washington gives it one heckuva good read. Too bad it instantaneously sucks what little momentum Washington and Zendaya had worked up for the rest of the movie.
Independently or together, Washington and Zendaya are impossible to look away from and both actors make you wish they had collaborated on a film that took their strengths and used them for something more interesting or less mouthpiece-y. I think Malcolm & Marie might have even worked if it would have removed Malcolm’s unfiltered rant and excised one or two of the “artful silences” that have been kept in but as it stands this couple becomes hard to listen to by the end and all you want to do is watch them turn out the light and sleep. Then at least they’ll, for once in the night, not have any hurtful things to say or demons to battle.