If I’m being honest, the main reason Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie, a movie I started and stopped no fewer than five times before finally completing it, piqued my interest was its aesthetic, which seemed to be an obvious homage to the iconic 1966 Mike Nichols film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. I thought I was in for a feast.
Like Woolf, Malcolm & Marie is shot in black and white and features a couple unraveling. It was written and directed by Sam Levinson, the man behind Euphoria, the hit HBO show following the lives of angsty teens. The majority of the story revolves around its titular characters, played by John David Washington and Zendaya, a couple who pull no punches when it comes to hashing out the ills of their toxic relationship. Sounds interesting, right? Well, since its release last Friday, the film has been seriously flayed and, as of writing this, sits at a dismal 58% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Shot in July 2020 during the early months of quarantine, the movie was born out of conversations Zendaya had with Levinson, specifically about “life over the past two years, about collaboration, about representation, about the film industry,” said Levinson in a recent joint interview with Zendaya. (According to Deadline, Zendaya had “implored Levinson to write a contained film she might fit in before starting her next Spider-Man film.”) But while the film is certainly watchable, and has already become the subject of many memes, it quickly became apparent that it is nothing more than surface-level mimicry of old Hollywood greatness, weighed down by a script — with too many ideas that aren’t sufficiently examined — that does its actors, who are trying their best, absolutely no favors.
The film begins with the couple returning home from the premiere of Malcolm’s movie. Malcolm recalls how the night went, including how critics were so taken with him, but it’s quite clear that Marie, his muse and romantic partner, is upset. After some back-and-forth, Marie reveals that during his speech Malcolm did not thank her, a dig made even worse by the fact that his film was based on her life, as a woman who dealt with drug addiction as a teen and in her early twenties. From the moment Marie discloses this, the seams of their relationship begin to unravel. “It’s psychotic to think that forgetting to thank you is symbolic of anything other than me legitimately forgetting to fucking thank you,” Malcolm says, defensively. “Malcolm, you thanked 1,200 fucking people,” Marie replies.
That bitter exchange is just one example of several littered throughout the film, where the couple verbally break each other down, in ways that are very painful to witness. But the story doesn’t ever really take off. Their arguments play on an endless loop and are punctuated with long, exhausting soliloquies (mostly by Washington’s character) that feel like work to get through — and I’m just a viewer! For example, there’s a scene where Malcolm attempts to take a critic to task, someone repeatedly referred to as the “white lady from the LA Times.” At first, Marie giggles as Malcolm wears himself out while ranting, but later she begins to yawn as he — for what truly feels like 10 minutes — bashes critics and their interpretation of art. “You’re the reason they make this fucking stale, safe, stagnant, turgid shit in the first place!” Malcolm screams. He ends his screed by saying he hopes the writer, who actually wrote a positive review of his film, ends up getting “fucking carpal tunnel until her hands atrophy and cramp and she can no longer write nonsensical fucking garbage like this anymore!” He then falls on the couch, panting.
The scene definitely feels like self-involved frustrations Levinson, who is white, is trying to work out himself. There’s another line in the film where Malcolm says, “The fact that Barry Jenkins isn’t gay — is that what made Moonlight so universal?” As a filmmaker, Malcolm believes a film is a presentation of how one interprets reality. His constant disdain for critics stems from how they engage with his work. He becomes incensed talking about critics who consider other factors, like the lead character’s race or, say, the filmmaker’s gender when they are reviewing his art. (As Malcolm reads the review, the critic writes that he is “reveling in the trauma of a woman” by including a scene where the main character appears shirtless. Marie, who just moments before this reminded her partner that the review is good, sides with the critic, saying, “I’m sure she just doesn’t think the nudity was necessary.”)
“You can’t hang everything on identity,” Malcolm says during his impossibly long response. “You can’t say that I brilliantly subverted this trope ’cause I’m Black, but I fell into this one because I’m a fucking man!” Levinson is seemingly attempting to make the case that the identity of the filmmaker is irrelevant, but the speech quickly devolves into ineffective whataboutism.
And that’s the primary issue with the film. It’s glossy and fun to look at, but overall it feels half-baked. The film seemed primed to be one of the standout pieces of art made during the pandemic. Two people hashing out their issues inside their home with nowhere else to go feels a lot like how life has been for much of the country for the last year. But because the movie was so rushed — it was written in six days and filmed in two weeks — the characters never move beyond caricature.
Washington and Zendaya are credited as producers and the script had some input from the leads, but there’s something about their relationship that doesn’t feel believable. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Taylor and Burton, a real-life couple at the time, inhabited their roles so well that the characters actually feel like real people. In Malcolm & Marie, it often feels like Washington is overacting, which, at times, comes across as a desperate attempt to seem deep. Zendaya has some bright spots, but there are a few moments when her role feels like a retread of what she’s done on Euphoria. And while this film doesn’t necessarily show anything that we hadn’t already seen from her, she’s still a force to be reckoned with. Fans of Zendaya were eager to see her in something new, but the film drew criticism for its portrayal of the couple’s unhealthy relationship.
Film critic Clarisse Loughrey enjoyed the film for its no-holds-barred representation of harmful relationships, as well the fine line reviewers must toe to avoid “looking as solipsistic as Malcolm himself.” Writer David Dennis Jr. didn’t see it that way, calling the film an “endless reel of a man terrorizing a woman who was emotionally trapped in a house, unable to escape.” Poisonous relationships have been the basis of a lot of incredible art, but it would’ve been more powerful if the movie explored the relationship beyond the cheap insults the couple hurled at one another. Malcolm & Marie would have also been better served by delving deeper into the power imbalance between the two, as writer Candice Frederick recently highlighted in a review for Elle. Marie’s story is essentially stolen from her by her partner and yet the film presents the two as if they are on equal footing.
To quote Elizabeth Taylor’s character Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, “I am the Earth Mother, and you’re all flops.” Malcolm & Marie, at first glance, may have the veneer of a great film, but it’s really a nothingburger masquerading as a steak. ●