“Malcolm & Marie,” a souped-up two-hander written and directed by “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson, will likely draw comparisons to 2019’s “Marriage Story,” another Netflix release. That film apexes with a sharply choreographed argument in which earlier scenes of quiet frustration and passive aggression finally bring the central couple to verbal blows.
“Malcolm & Marie” stages a similar scene within its first 20 minutes, and spends the rest of its runtime circling loud, empty talking points. Like “Marriage Story,” this film is a dialogue-heavy look at the ruptures in a relationship between an egotistical director and his beleaguered, belittled muse. But while the leads of “Marriage Story” seem human, Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) are mere ciphers, dutifully taking turns giving pompous monologues about the other’s self-obsession and the evils of contemporary film criticism. The end product is an iffy blend of romantic drama and artistic critique that utterly fails to achieve credibility on either register.
The couple is already at odds when we meet them, returning home after the premiere of Malcolm’s latest feature. Malcolm is a douchebag right off the bat, giddily dancing around their swanky modern home and congratulating himself on making “a fucking knockout punch” of a movie. A pointedly silent Marie cooks him mac and cheese. She soon makes the cause of her sullenness clear: Malcolm forgot to thank her in his speech, after basing his film on her struggles with addiction. When confronted, he comes off as too much of an entitled blowhard to care.
Why on earth, then, are these two still together? Levinson’s script doesn’t seem to know. Though the characters occasionally reference past slights as ammunition, there’s no sense of depth to this relationship, no nooks or crannies to explore between the overwritten insults Malcolm and Marie hurl at one another.
Washington gives an energetic performance that, despite his best efforts, often translates on screen as a bunch of hot air. Zendaya, as usual, is transcendent — her quivering lip as she lays in the bathtub after a particularly venomous exchange is the closest “Malcolm & Marie” comes to emotional realism. Her performance, though, is deadened by the film’s tiresome rhythm; following almost every speech or a shouting match, the couple will lapse into some artfully rendered heavy petting, only to find a new excuse to throw on the boxing gloves.
Hovering over this sparring is “the white lady from the LA Times.” Malcolm’s complaints about her rave review of his film introduce the dialogue “Malcolm & Marie” aims to incite about Hollywood. Malcolm is angry that he only gets compared to Black filmmakers, that white critics often deal in condescending platitudes about how Black stories are “important,” that movies nowadays are reviewed based on a commercialized conception of identity politics. These are questions worth raising, but Levinson offers no useful reflection on potential answers.
Instead, Malcolm’s diatribes take on the color of personal grievance. As other critics have noted, the “white lady from the LA Times” seems an awful lot like a stand-in for Katie Walsh, who panned Levinson’s “Assassination Nation” for its male gaze-y, sexualized violence (the film’s fictional critic has a similar take on Malcolm’s treatment of his female main character). In this context, Malcolm’s words about her — she’s a “mediocre-ass writer” who doesn’t know what a Steadicam shot is — feel childish and cruel.
Marie has rejoinders, likely in a meager effort on Levinson’s part to pantomime both sides, but they’re flimsy in comparison to the screen time given to Malcolm’s ideas (namely that you can’t judge a film based on “an intangible yet purely hypothetical assessment of one’s identity”). One gets the sense that Levinson is using this particular thesis on criticism to pettily and preemptively defend against any objections to this film; which, at the risk of taking the bait, is a questionable choice for a white director deliberately using a Black protagonist to espouse his musings on “identity politics.”
Perhaps Levinson meant for Malcolm to be laughably unlikeable, in which case he’s succeeded. Malcolm begins the movie screaming at his girlfriend about how she’s a “mental patient” and, at one point, tells her he could “snap her like a twig.” Unfortunately, the film is more interested in quipping about William Wyler than in truly unpacking the pain of these words. That’s a disconnect that no amount of black-and-white photography can gloss over.