Review: “Malcolm & Marie” is Well-Acted, but Exhausting

Headache-inducing, exhausting, claustrophobic, yet compelling, Sam Levinson’s “Malcolm & Marie” feels just as volatile as the relationship between its titular characters—sweet one moment, then sour the next. The film stars John David Washington as Malcolm, an up-and-coming filmmaker, and Zendaya as Marie, an actress with a stalled career. We viewers are treated to a high-energy, emotional, and intriguing opening as the couple returns from Malcolm’s film premiere, Marie lights a cigarette, and James Brown blasts through their sleek Malibu home. Unfortunately, the plot seems to go downhill from there.

As a film, “Malcolm & Marie” is hard to pin down; it feels like a good watch, yet it’s simultaneously underwhelming. The couple’s constant arguing is inherently emotional, but the film somehow lacks a true emotional core. The acting is superb, but the lines often feel air-lifted out of a drama school exercise book. The only real way I can describe the film is exhausting: emotionally, thematically, and theatrically. 

The film serves us fight after fight with almost-consummated break-up sex in between. Afterwards, a character stares into the distance, gets a close-up, or puts on another song, paws or picks at old sores in their relationship, and the fighting begins again. The emotional beats were unexpected and felt like they came out of left field, with no real resolution of set-up between one fight and the next, save for a scene change or convenient cut. And while I get that it’s a film about relationship tension, the 106 straight minutes of fiery back and forths in one moment, cutting to sweet “I love you’s” can feel a bit much. Scratch that, it did feel like too much.

Another one of the film’s appealingly shot, but substantially disappointing, aspects is how the movie interacts with the meta-narrative. Throughout the film, Malcolm expresses his disappointment with critics fixating on his identity as a Black filmmaker, with one reporter he refers to as the “white lady from the ‘[Los Angeles] Times’” serving as his outlet. He constantly insists his work is apolitical and argues that identity and authenticity are too often prized above artistry in the film industry. However, what could have been a sharp commentary on the tokenization of marginalized creators in Hollywood falls flat by virtue of the sheer incoherence of the film’s message. In one notable instance, we see a delightfully acted but supremely confusing ten-minute monologue where Malcolm rants about his qualms with the “white lady from the ‘[Los Angeles] Times’” and film criticism as a whole. It’s glaringly meta, possibly petty (if Levinson is indeed using Malcolm as a mouthpiece for his own grievances towards film), but, mainly, it’s clouded by characterization. Malcolm’s message would be clear if the film had not written him as a youthful, hotheaded egoist, then given him a social commentary monologue that was effectively inseparable from his “solipsism and megalomania,” as Marie referred to. 

However, for all its faults, the film’s saving grace comes mainly in the form of its acting. Zendaya and John David Washington give their best effort at some often mediocre lines, and they carry the film. Even if the conflict doesn’t seem believable in the first place, the two create palpable tension, and it pays off. I found myself invested in their relationship, and I was willing to hold on through over an hour and 40 minutes of shouting, insults, and, essentially, two people berating each other for the duration of the film. In particular, John David Washington gave life and credence to a mostly unlikeable character and, most importantly, made Marie’s love for Malcolm make sense. Executing this plot was a difficult and impressive feat, on the part of both actors. 

“Malcolm & Marie” takes us on a twisting, rambling road of lovers’ quarrels, haltingly-executed social commentary, and leaves us stumbling around the hills of Malibu looking for a point to the whole, bitter affair. While its stars shine despite stilted dialogue, their characters drag and meander to no satisfying destination. As a viewer, the film served mainly as a reminder of why I tend to give a wide berth to the category of film I call “Man and Woman in Tenuous Relationship Shout at Each Other for Two Hours to become an Awards Season Darling.” It’s a watch worth considering, at the very least, but sitting through the thing is another beast in and of itself. 

This film receives a 3/5 for being a well-acted—though exhausting—ramble through a tumultuous relationship.