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Netflix Review: Malcolm & Marie

February 8, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Malcolm & Marie, writer-director Sam Levinson’s new Netflix film that you’ve probably seen people arguing about on social media, is, at the very least, somewhat of an interesting experiment. It’s a black and white, dialogue-driven drama that centres around only two people, unfolds entirely in one house, and was shot with minimal crew during the pandemic.

It’s hard not to admire some of the craft on display in the film, including Marcell Rév’s cinematography, and Zendaya and John David Washington are both quite good in the two title roles. But I don’t think Malcolm & Marie is ultimately very good as a whole picture. Levinson’s film plays with such an inflated sense of self-importance that it starts to feel insufferably pretentious after a certain point, and grows tiresome rather quickly.

Washington stars as an up-and-coming filmmaker named Malcolm Elliott, a clear stand-in for Levinson himself. Malcolm and his younger girlfriend Marie Jones (Zendaya) have just gotten home from the premiere of his new film, a drama about a young female drug addict. He is amped up and anxiously waiting for the reviews to come in, boasting about the rapturous audience reaction to his film.

Meanwhile, Marie appears quiet and somewhat more reserved, harbouring deep but justifiable resentments that will come flooding to the forefront during a massive, overnight fight. What follows is a chamber piece that seems heavily inspired by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, playing out basically as one big, extended argument, with the couple moving around the house and lobbing verbal grenades at each other over the course of the night.

As Malcolm struts about the house tooting his own horn, Marie starts pushing back against his inflated ego, fighting to be treated as an equal within their relationship and also for some credit with helping advance his filmmaking career. There are some potentially interesting ideas here about ownership and who gets to tell what stories, but they get somewhat lost in a film that itself never quite strikes the right note, and the fight between the two title characters ultimately becomes more tiring than insightful. 

The initial social media controversy that the film faced came when the trailer dropped and people started criticizing the age gap between Zendaya (24) and Washington (36), claiming that she was too young to play his love interest. To its credit, this age difference is actually addressed in the film itself, with Malcolm treating her as a sort of young, trophy girlfriend to hang off his arm at premieres. This twelve year age difference also helps illustrate the power imbalance between the two that underpins the entire movie.

The other, perhaps more tenable controversy that Malcolm & Marie has faced stems from the fact that Levinson’s script far too often comes across like an angry, entitled screed against film critics who have judged his work. It feels like Levinson is taking direct aim at critics who didn’t blindly praise his previous film Assassination Nation, (a stylish and fairly entertaining movie that was also guilty of thinking it was way more clever and insightful than it was), and at a certain point, this just starts to come across as really self-aggrandizing.

Levinson’s choice to air his own grievances through the perspective of a Black protagonist also feels somewhat tone deaf. Malcolm rails against how, as a Black man, his work is expected to be political by “woke” white film critics, (“that white critic from the Los Angeles Times” gets brought up and mocked repeatedly), and his character delivers scathing takedowns of their work. Malcolm is also given dialogue about not getting the same opportunities to make commercial films as his white counterparts. But the character’s rantings are ostensibly those of the film’s white writer and director, who got his own start in Hollywood by being the son of Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Levinson.

Still, I do think Washington and Zendaya are very good in Malcolm & Marie. The film is well acted, and both actors deliver several lengthy monologues that seem destined to be studied and replicated in acting classes for the foreseeable future. But the film also suffers from being an overly self-indulgent work that gets exhausting to watch after a while and overstays its welcome at a too long 105 minutes, with few grace notes to help us connect to the characters on a deeper level. It ends up feeling like a high level student project, albeit one centred around two movie stars tearing up the screen.

Malcolm & Marie is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

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