The new drama film from writer/director Sam Levinson just hit the widely popular streaming service Netflix on February 5, sparking interest from film critics/analysts such as myself as well as regular fans of the many successful Netflix specials the company has produced. Here, Netflix presents Malcolm and Marie, starring acclaimed actress Zendaya and John David Washington (son of actor Denzel Washington), in the roles of Malcolm and Marie, the film’s two sole characters. As far as the plot, the narrative revolves around a couple composed of filmmaker Malcolm and his girlfriend Marie, and follows the aftermath of Malcolm’s movie premiere, with each engaging in bitter conflicts as they progressively grow more irritated with one another. The narrative is fairly simple and direct, leaving a lot of room to construct a thoughtful drama with subtlety among the subtexts and provocative takeaways for the audience, but this concept isn’t exactly seen through by Sam Levinson. Malcolm and Marie provides an interesting, but fatally messy narrative diving into humanity’s abundance of flaws, using stellar performances, stylistic cinematography, comedic dialogue, and a top-notch soundtrack as a transparent blanket covering what little this film actually accomplishes.
To start, there are several aspects of this film that are executed extremely well, with the standout highlight being the exhilarating performances from Zendaya and Washington. Watching these two go back and forth (or engaging in a monologue) creates a tense atmosphere that the audience is forced to endure, and it makes the film a lot more engaging. On top of the amazing performances, Malcolm and Marie has a stylistically intriguing presentation, shot on 35mm black and white film. While it isn’t anything new or groundbreaking, it works well for this film as it reinforces the brutal conflict between the couple, and makes the visuals more intimate for the viewer. While a great chunk of the writing is underwhelming, Malcolm and Marie has its moments where the bitter disputes turn into playful banter, and several of these moments create a natural shift in tone to serve the audience the more comedic aspects of Malcolm and Marie’s relationship, with my favorite standout being the first line that comes from the trailer, “You are by far the most excruciating, difficult, stubbornly obnoxious woman I’ve met in my entire life: I f**king love you.” (Washington). The final impressionable aspect of this film is the soundtrack, with the tunes ranging from old-school R&B jams from William Bell to the acclaimed, modern Hip-Hop artist Little Simz. Each of these aspects levels up the film above mediocrity to some extent, with the more polished bits developing an intriguing tale of their own as they are able to shine more brightly through the elements Sam Levinson failed to portray.
On the topic of what Malcolm and Marie fail to accomplish, the film doesn’t provide a larger look into the various thematic elements it introduces, and that’s where the film mostly falls apart. Sam Levinson splits his focus into two main thematic commentaries, one being the toxic complexity surrounding Malcolm and Marie’s relationship, and the other being an unjust treatment of film critics (and critics in general). To start off with the two sole characters, the premise revolving around their flawed relationship is interesting enough itself (as I stated before), but fails to reveal anything that the audience can take an understanding of, there isn’t any clear resolution to their conflict. As characters, each one is complex in their own right, as the audience never truly knows what’s real and what’s fiction, each character will constantly contradict themselves to the point of distortion of reality among the two. For Malcolm, everything he does serves to build his inflated ego, and anything that jeopardizes that, whether it’s Marie or his critics, he pushes away and isn’t able to handle the reality that isn’t fit for his narrative, and Marie shares this flaw to an extent. Marie feels she’s been exploited as Malcolm takes inspiration for his film from the parts of her past that represent her greatest struggles, and justifiably she holds resentment towards Malcolm for this. This serves as the basis of the conflict between the two, each recognizing the flaws in each other, but not within themselves (which in itself is a human flaw), which makes for intriguing dialogue, but the issue revolves around the direction the narrative takes, as the audience has to endure these bitter moments, only to reach an unresolved ending. My argument isn’t that ambiguity is bad, because often times it works extremely well (ie American Psycho, Inception), but for a drama film featuring two unconditionally flawed characters, it’s important for the audience to be able to take something away from it, it should speak to the viewers with situations people can relate to, and Malcolm and Marie fails to do just that. The other point that Levinson brings to the table is the place media has in popular culture, and what it means to the artists behind the project being praised or bashed. Levinson takes a harsh attitude towards critics and utilizes Malcolm to convey his commentary on the supposedly impossible standards that critics create for artists. For Malcolm desperately trying to protect his self-value and ego, this sort of makes sense for his character, but Levinson spends too much time on this and the result comes off as placement of personal bitterness in a film where it doesn’t really belong, the narrative moves forward, and any takeaway from this aspect of the film is left in the dust. Levinson also attempts to throw in a racial element regarding the placement of white criticism towards black artists (particularly black filmmakers), which is an interesting idea in itself, but once again Levinson fails to do anything major with it.
Overall, Malcolm and Marie isn’t by any means a terrible film. It’s intriguing, with great visuals and exciting performances, and Levinson’s directing is carefully executed, and among the many flaws the writing contains some form of consistency and structure, but unfortunately suffers from lack of a real focus, it doesn’t really leave much of a lasting impression because as far as I’m concerned, there simply isn’t one to be found. Malcolm and Marie is available now on Netflix.