It takes a lot to sell a lovers tiff on screen. You know the ones I’m talking about; the teeth-bearing, table slamming, teary-eyed explosions that leave you exhausted and both parties regretting the things they’ve said. Netflix checked that box in 2019 with Marriage Story, and now they’ve given us another, during the time of quarantine no less, in Malcolm & Marie. Directed and written by Sam Levinson, his Euphoria star and leading lady Zendaya is the Marie to John David Washington’s Malcolm. Two sides of what seems like a volatile relationship that’s going to spend the evening pulling itself apart and look visually stunning doing so.
The reason for this bit of feature-length friction is permissible. The two have returned home on the premiere night of Malcolm’s directorial debut film that saw him up on stage, thanking everyone for their involvement. Everyone except Marie. She says it’s ‘fine’ and to asks to talk about it in the morning, but doing so would waste the gorgeous cinematography that immediately presents itself thanks to Marcell Rév. From the minute JDW sticks on some tunes and pours himself a glass, the camera twirls around this stupidly lovely home like a perfume ad, but it’s the smell of tension that’s in the air. In no time at all, a simmering spat becomes a volcano between the two, and they’re stoking the altercation with everything they’ve got. Malcolm and Marie begin firing shots at each other in an argument that like all love-infused fights, chip away at more significant issues between them both with success not just dependent on who throws it, but how it lands as well.
As the two continue to spit venom down the halls, across rooms and out into the night, with the full intent to burn the other, it’s a testament to just how perfect this pairing is that every comment and comeback hurts. Their chemistry is faultless, and while we’ve not seen this couple on a good day, seeing their one stormy night unfold is real and raw. A significant blowout that’s littered with awkward silences, occasional breaks in everyday conversation, and natural instances of watching the other lose their head will beg you to point at the screen and say “I’ve been there”. That being said, both Malcolm and Marie are compelling characters all on their own. Zendaya unquestionably shares echoes of Rue from Euphoria which isn’t a discredit to her performance, but more praise to an actor that is just getting warmed up in a career that’s on course to be a great one. Marie may or may not be Malcolm’s tortured muse, that as all significant others do, knows her other half as much as she knows herself. While she sparks the bout that goes on all evening, doing so leads her to become as self-destructive as her beau is keen to point out.
As for Malcolm, this is John David Washington’s best turn to date. Switching from peace-maker to punching bag, and prosecutor as much as his on-screen other half, it’s a vastly different turn to what’s come before for the star of Tenet and BlacKkKlansman. Giving as good he gets from to the woman that can stop him with a thousand-yard stare, his added complexity is his narcissism and fighting against it when the first reviews for his film come out mid-argument. It’s here though where the critical fallout mid-falling out leads Malcolm & Marie get too lost in the details Levinson is struggling to highlight.
While it’s a commendable effort, the utter tirade Malcolm unleashes after the first take on his film arrives online is as fair as it is problematic. Ripping into the white man’s film industry and the gushing review that he feels is only in place because it’s praising a black director is nailing its analysis but goes on to the point of feeling jarring. The rant almost pulls you out of the moment that both have been working to capture, and takes a while to get back into. Perhaps Levinson’s fair perspective on Hollywood at the moment may have been best suited in a prequel surrounding the couple’s highs, instead of being wedged into their evening low. Even so, it’s a gripe that can be easily overlooked in a film that displays two great talents showing love and war in a gorgeous looking night. Have a good evening.