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‘Malcolm & Marie’ slides between honesty and buffoonery

‘Malcolm & Marie’ slides between honesty and buffoonery

‘Malcolm & Marie’ slides between honesty and buffoonery
February 11
11:01 2021

“So this is what happens when you get a good review?”

A couple comes home after a seemingly successful premiere night. Cocky first-time director Malcolm (John David Washington) is high on success, while girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) is colder. As the night drags on, the two trade increasingly vicious jabs regarding each other’s character and whether or not Malcolm appropriated Marie’s pain for his latest project.

As the latest project from “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson who writes and directs here, “Malcolm & Marie” is a small-scale relationship melodrama using two top-of-their-game actors as they butt heads while exploring issues of love, art, the film industry, race, criticism and so much more. For such a tiny, intimate vanity piece, it’s a lot.

A lot that doesn’t quite gel together.

The biggest fault of “Malcolm & Marie” is that it suffers from an uneven balance between honesty and pseudo-intellectual buffoonery. While two leads give solid performances as explosive as tank shells and Sam Levinson does a good job with the camera, it kind of wavers between interesting reflections on being an artist and just two people inanely screaming for nearly two hours.

The casting isn’t the problem. Washington and Zendaya have excellent chemistry, acting out their character’s tumultuous five-year history with angry precision and aplomb. Washington can be vicious and blunt, while Zendaya can be sharp and pointed. They trade tactics, dominate the screentime and dialogue in equal measure and really show how good they are in shouting matches.

The other big pro is the use of grainy black-and-white. While some people will find this pretty hipster, Levinson is actually pretty proficient with it. He doesn’t just use grainy black-and-white film, he uses it to create high contrasts. “Malcolm & Marie” is not just muted grays, it’s bright whites against inky blacks, which are very appealing to look at.

Levinson also knows how to frame his actors within the lens of the camera — there are quite a few moments where he effectively demonstrates the shift of power in the conversations using just the camera, plus really good-looking shots of Malcolm and Marie just wandering in the outside darkness. As pretentious as Levinson can be here and his other projects, he does have chops.

There’s also a decent, piano-heavy pop soundtrack. Electronic hip-hop artist Labrinth does some good original work here, while “Euphoria” music supervisor Jen Malone compiled most of it. This soundtrack has Outkast, Duke Ellington, James Brown and many more. However, it does still clash with some of the character work.

Where this movie kind of lost me is the actual script. While Levinson and co. are mostly competent here, a dialogue-heavy film doesn’t hold together if the dialogue itself and what the writer is trying to convey doesn’t come together, which is the case in “Malcolm & Marie.”

Levinson talks a lot through his two protagonists in this movie. While the initial fight starts over something an unseen actress says to Marie, Levinson likes to switch gears quite a bit. Most of the middle portion is an impressive rant by Malcolm over the merit of an artist’s identity as a component of art, which entertains through Washington’s sheer cannon-blast outburst of phosphoric rage.

However, the problem comes when these dialogues spiral into longwinded sequences without any real point. Yeah, Malcolm knows about William Wyler, but so what? Despite coming from Malcolm and Marie’s mouths, these rants take the focus away from their potentially enrapturing history and instead focus on jumbled, jagged lectures that go nowhere.

It doesn’t help that the film tries to talk about the complicated identity politics of Black directors trying to escape stereotyping, with Malcolm blasting “Karen” for calling his directorial debut “jazzy,” while Levinson himself indulges in a heavily jazz-influenced soundtrack. It smells like bait.

It’s also the kind of movie that talks about critics, with the eye-roll that follows. That whole middle is so heavily focused on tearing apart an unnamed critic, a “Karen,” the film as a whole loses steam despite Washington doing his damndest to entertain. Potentially interesting insights into relationships get trumped in the name of pompous metacommentary.

I’m more interested in Marie’s backstory and her thoughts on their relationship than I am on Levinson seemingly using Malcolm to slam his own critics. Jeez.

“Malcolm & Marie” is a tightrope between fiery sincerity and dull pretentiousness, but with a certain lack of grace. Sam Levinson, John David Washington and Zendaya clearly have what it takes to craft compelling narratives. However, Levinson’s incredibly indulgent dialogue makes an already hard-sell even harder to enjoy.

Will’s rating: 2.5/5

Courtesy Netflix

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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