Zendaya Shines in the Exhausting ‘Malcolm & Marie’

Malcolm & Marie is a film about war.

It’s a war waged on three different levels. Narratively, there is budding film director Malcolm (John David Washington) and his former actress girlfriend/creative muse Marie (Zendaya), locked in a toxic relationship that seems to be held together by Elmer’s Glue and lazy habit. Thematically, the film sets artists against critics, dissecting the very nature and value of film criticism with the precision of a surgical knife, even though the injury amounts to little more than a scraped knee. Finally,  Malcolm & Marie is a deep internal struggle for cinematic dominance, where the titular couple’s deteriorating relationship must battle against writer-director Sam Levinson’s crusade against the destructive evils of critique.

What’s left of this celluloid carnage is a frequently exhausting and occasionally compelling film about the psychological toll of art and ego on relationships. Levinson builds Malcolm & Marie around the night after the movie premiere of Malcolm’s directorial debut. His film fictionalizes their relationship of love amidst her drug addiction, and while the audience loved it, Marie feels differently. She believes that Malcolm has erased her personal and professional contributions to the film, even though her life and love for her are at the film’s core. Her resentment starts with Malcolm’s failure to thank Marie during his speech, but it runs deep down to the relationship’s kernel, where she services his egomania without so much as a show of appreciation.

Zendaya in Malcolm & Marie (courtesy: Netflix)

Levinson frames the couple’s volatile dynamic within a sine wave of brutal confrontations. Their first fight about Malcolm not thanking Marie is remarkably intense and then resolves before the 30-minute mark. After a moment to take in some classic jazz and R&B music (provided by Labrinth), the two are back at it, warring over similar territory but digging into their shared and individual pasts for new weaponry. The punishing cycle continues throughout the film’s 2-hour runtime, giving Malcolm and Marie ample opportunity to uncover endless wells of grievances and mutual disdain. And yet, the couple never progresses far beyond that initial argument, cyclically rehashing their relationship’s core dysfunction. Those fights can be compelling, illuminating, and even heartbreaking. Still, once you’re free from the vortex, you’ll realize that they’ve achieved very little and a resolution, whether it be a breakup or a reinforced commitment, is nowhere within reach.

Marie’s resentment of Malcolm would make for a fascinating deconstruction of “the muse” and its intersection with race, class, and yes, even age, given the controversy around Zendaya and John David Washington’s age difference (she is 24, he is 36). Levinson does intimate during a particularly gutting and quietly brutal exchange that Malcolm did indeed leech off of Marie’s trauma for the sake of his art and that she isn’t the first. Sadly, he only scratches its surface, breaking from that provocative observation about the entertainment industry for a comparatively less uninteresting one. 

Zendaya and John David Washington in Malcolm & Marie (courtesy: Netflix)

Apart from undermining and sexualizing Marie, Malcolm’s other sole purpose is to set ablaze the whole concept of criticism. Malcolm is effectively Levinson’s cinematic stand-in, spouting off his rants about art and politics, misunderstandings of shot composition, and how directors’ personal life informs their creative processes. In one memorable stretch, Malcolm rages against a generally positive review from a white female critic from the Los Angeles Times, blasting her inaccuracies and name-dropping everyone from William Wilder to Ida Lupino to demonstrate his mastery of the craft. It’s an outrageously self-indulgent moment for Malcolm and, by extension, Levinson. What keeps it from being indefensibly so is Levinson’s apparent self-awareness, as he captures Malcolm’s meltdown from Marie’s bewildered and amused perspective. Still, given the narrative space it fills, you can’t help but believe that Levinson does take Malcolm’s criticisms of criticism somewhat seriously. Whatever the case, the rumination detracts from Malcolm and Marie’s relationship. 

Malcolm & Marie has narrative troubles, but it is an impressive production given the circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Hollywood and completely re-structured the filmmaking process. Levinson has taken on the challenge, becoming one of the most prolific creators during this unprecedented time with the release of two critically-acclaimed special episodes of the HBO series Euphoria. Like those projects, Malcolm & Marie is effectively a two-hander but doesn’t lose its cinematic ambitions or qualities. Levinson uses as much of the limited setting as possible, keeping the action moving throughout the house and outside. He captures everything in black-and-white, and while its cinematic purpose depends on where you think Levinson’s priorities lie, you can’t deny that the cinematography is striking. It’s most effective when Malcolm and Marie are fighting in the bathroom, the camera peering up at him and nearly whiting out his eyes, masking the intentions behind his eerily calm evisceration of her. 

Zendaya in Malcolm & Marie (courtesy: Netflix)

That scene is more than just strong shot framing and intriguing lighting choices. Like all of Malcolm & Marie, it would’ve been an abject failure if John David Washington and Zendaya were not up to the task. Of the two, Zendaya has the enviable position, working with the more emotionally rich material and serving as an audience surrogate to Malcolm’s high-octane chaos. Marie isn’t necessarily a stretch in range for Zendaya than her Emmy-winning turn in Euphoria or her role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, she demonstrates a quietly powerful command over the character that pulls you in, even when she’s merely responding to the histrionics aimed at her. Beneath that smart, steely presence is simmering insecurity and doubt, which Zendaya does a beautiful job surfacing when Marie is at her lowest ebbs. Washington has the showier and least sympathetic role, ranting with staggering self-importance and projecting his weaknesses onto his partner. To that aim, he is very successful, and in his more animated moments, carries the same undeniable atmosphere of his father, Denzel. Together, they sell the absolute lunacy of Malcolm and Marie’s relationship, even if the film doesn’t quite know its sum.

It’s peak irony that Malcolm & Marie, a film produced under such rigid limitations, suffers from both misdirected focus and an inescapable, pretentious atmosphere. More restraint might’ve side-stepped its issues entirely. A swift chop of the 30 minutes from the runtime, a greater interest in the ramifications of Marie’s understandable gripes with her partner, and a more straightforward unfurling of their conflict would’ve made the film less challenging to watch. The ambition behind its creation is admirable, and the performances of its two stars are superlative, but Malcolm & Marie is ultimately just too much and not enough.

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