After a long and successful night, Malcolm (John David Washington, “Tenet”) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya, “Euphoria”) come home to eat mac and cheese. They’ve just been to Malcolm’s movie premiere where he, as the writer/director, received very positive feedback from several critics. As he turns up some music and dances around the house, relishing the night, Marie (not so subtly) hints that she is less than pleased. But Malcolm is too in his head to notice.
The anger that Marie feels quickly takes center stage when Malcolm finally notices her mood and insists she tells him what’s wrong. He didn’t thank her in his speech, even though he seemed to have thanked everyone else in his life. This one argument becomes the basis of the film and encapsulates the problem with Malcolm and Marie’s relationship: He doesn’t value her.
The rest of the film takes this one argument and pretty much beats it to death. The pattern of fighting and making up and fighting again is predictable and becomes very tired, very quickly. The film is thankfully saved by its performances: Zendaya and Washington have truly wonderful chemistry, which is used to the film’s advantage.
But eventually, even the energy that the actors radiate becomes exhausting. Malcolm has several extensive monologues (rants, really) that are either narcissistic, manipulative or both. During one of these monologues, Malcolm expresses his frustration about how films made by Black artists are often viewed and lauded as political, even if the film itself isn’t.
However, many viewers have wondered if this is director Sam Levinson (“Euphoria”) voicing his own frustrations about the criticism his own films have received, but through a Black character. While the film isn’t entirely centered on that theme alone, it begs the question: Is Levinson really the right person to make a film about what it’s like to be a Black filmmaker?
Not that this issue is exactly what “Malcolm & Marie” is about. We get to spend a full movie with the same two characters, getting a glimpse of a relationship that clearly has a lot of history and a lot of problems. This film was one of the first to be made during quarantine, and while the premise certainly uses COVID-19 guidelines to its advantage, it quickly becomes suffocating. It all unfolds in one location with the same two people — along with the fact that the film feels like one long, brutal argument — watching “Malcolm & Marie” makes you feel trapped. It’s definitely not relaxing. Even if that’s the point, there is no breakthrough or change after the fighting, and there really needs to be.
With its black and white cinematography and jazzy instrumentals, the style of “Malcolm & Marie” is distinct and will draw you in. The premise and characters are certainly intriguing, but the abusive and monotonous nature of its plot ultimately leaves viewers begging for something more.
Daily Arts Writer Judith Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.