Malcolm & Marie

Two Takes on Malcolm & Marie

Dept. of Agreeing To Disagree


Written and directed by Sam Levinson (the creator and showrunnner of HBO’s Euphoria), Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie takes place over a few hours in the wee hours, as we bear witness to a rambling, rage-filled, and relentless lovers’ spat between a (possibly?) great auteur, Malcolm (John David Washington), and his girlfriend (muse?), Marie (Zendaya).

The movie has been divisive. Both Zendaya and John David Washington have been praised for their performances, but the film itself has been called out for being emotionally inauthentic.

Here now are our two cents.

Umapagan Ampikaipakan: So… you really loved this movie. Like, love-loved this movie. 

Bahir Yeusuff: You know what, I did. It was just the right amount of drama for me. It didn’t feel melodramatic. Like say Marriage Story was.

UA: So let me get what I loved about Malcolm & Marie out of the way. Both Zendaya and John David Washington are fantastic. And this movie is a great showcase for who they are as performers. The risk with these sorts of two-handers is that they can easily slip into the theatrical, and Sam Levinson knows how to work his actors so that they do more than just emote on a stage.

I also loved the production. The black and white was utterly sumptuous and a brilliant artistic decision for the movie. The house they shot in is an Airbnb fantasy. And the soundtrack was perfect.

My problem with it was twofold. 1) I felt like it could have been – and should have been – 20 minutes shorter. And 2) I couldn’t find any reason to root for either of them.

Malcolm & Marie

BY: I didn’t have a problem with the length of the movie. I was very much all in. I loved the way the movie just meanders through the house, and from argument to argument. The fights are brutal. This isn’t a sparring match. This was for all the marbles. I loved the constant shifting of alliances. As a viewer, my alliances kept shifting. I never felt settled and that kept me going. I wanted to hear more truth bombs. This was like watching Ali and Frazier. No one was backing down. No one was giving up. And the end of the movie really felt like two prizefighters having newfound respect for each other. They both landed some crippling body blows, but at the end of the day, they respected the game.

Man, I really enjoyed this movie. I mean, “enjoy” is a weird way of describing a movie about a couple fighting, and digging out painful truths, and picking at each other’s emotional scabs, but everything about it was done so well. From Sam Levinson’s restrained but active camera (although I believe our colleague Iain McNally didn’t enjoy that too much), to that long flowing shot when they first arrived home. That moment, with Washington walking rings around the living room as Zendaya is cooking mac and cheese, and the camera shoots into the house from the outside. I loved it. It was emotional. Evocative. It was like a dance.

UA: I found it a little too much of too much. Yes, the lovers’ quarrel has always made for great cinema, but I think I needed to see some narrative restraint. Here their fight starts at an eight, jumps to a 10, and just stays there. I needed a moment to breathe. I needed to believe that their last argument was, in fact, their last argument. Because then, when either one of them gets triggered again, it would come as a surprise. After their third or fourth spat in the movie, I just kept waiting to see what would set them off again. I knew it was coming.

Which is why I felt shorter might have been better. A tighter edit may have left some room for surprise.

That said, we would have lost those meandering shots that I too loved. This movie drips with atmosphere and I swear that was what helped me push through to the end.

BY: Interesting. I didn’t feel that way at all. I agree with everything you said except that I was waiting for the next argument. I wanted to see what else they would reveal about the other person, and themselves. When Zendaya accuses Washington of telling her story, he holds back. Until later in the film, when he confronts her in the bath and tells the story of his previous lovers. Even then, it starts off as a win for Washington (it’s not always about you Zendaya!), but he goes too far and starts to revel in the pain he is delivering to her. He pushes the knife in too far, twists it too much. This series of arguments they’re having, to me at least, felt like it was their first big one. Nowhere close to being their last, but maybe their first. They are both pulling out the stops, pulling out the greatest hits (excuse the pun), and intending to hurt. 

John David Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm is great. He brings the same swagger he brought to Ballers as an NFL football player. The confidence. The “always up for a fight” attitude.

Malcolm & Marie

UA: Okay, so I have a question. Did you feel that their fight – and I hate to use this word – was authentic? Or was it just drama? Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that cinema needs to be “authentic.” Movies are make believe and writers and directors should be able to delve into the fantastic. That said, this is a movie that seems to crouch its entire narrative in authenticity. (Any one of Malcolm’s diatribes will tell you that.) Does it succeed in doing so?

BY: I honestly couldn’t tell you. What I can say is that I never felt uncomfortable watching it. I never felt like Zendaya’s Marie was at a disadvantage. Yeah, she took some big hits, but she threw some big ones herself. Marie never felt like a victim. It was an equal fight, in my mind at least, and a big part of that is how Zendaya played Marie. Marie – through her troubled and difficult past – has grown strong. She doesn’t falter when Malcolm is attacking her. She pushes back, fights back, hits back. And that helped the movie stay outside of the melodramatic.

Was it authentic? I really don’t know. I’ve met many women who can hold themselves the way Marie does in a fight. Was it drama for drama’s sake? I don’t think so. In the context of the characters, and the night, and their shared and separate histories, it feels like it could be the type of argument they’d have. Was it “silly” for Marie to feel slighted for not having been thanked? Maybe. But then you learn about her history, and how the film that Malcolm is being celebrated for so closely mirrors her life, and you start to think that she has a point. It’s the back and forth between them, both sounding a little crazy, but also having a legitimate bone to pick.

What did you think? You said that it felt “too much of too much.” Was that just the fighting? Did it feel less authentic to you because of it?

UA: I found it a little too relentless. Thus the “too much of too much.” I find that movies like this work best when written following a sine curve. With peaks and troughs. This was all escalation all the way. 

But that wasn’t why I found it to be inauthentic. I think the message in the movie didn’t translate to the message of the movie. There is a moment, when Malcolm is going off on an L.A. Times critic and he says: “Cinema doesn’t need to have a fucking message. It needs to have a heart and electricity.” It’s a great line. One I believe in wholeheartedly. And yet, this movie seems to shove its message at you constantly. There’s definitely electricity here. But I couldn’t find the heart. Therein lies the disconnect. At least for me.

BY: I get it now. And here’s where I break you – I totally agree with you. This movie had no heart. The fighting did feel like fighting for fighting’s sake. But I saw past that. There’s a line in the movie where Washington’s Malcolm takes about how they should get married because he feels like they are going to get married and divorced so many times that they might as well get a head start now. And that to me almost felt like the point of this movie. That this version of “love” that they have for each other is so messed up that they may never be able to break the cycle. The fighting for fighting’s sake was good enough for me because it was such good fighting. But also because it felt like a very real moment in a dysfunctional relationship.

UA: You can’t agree with me! That’s not how this works! Imagine if Malcolm agreed with Marie? Or vice versa? The movie would be over in fifteen minutes and they would have been able to get to bed at a reasonable hour. I think my impatience towards this movie is reflective of my growing old. I kept thinking: “Man, that’s a nice bed, why don’t you guys just go to sleep already?”

That said, I’ll tell you one other thing I liked about this movie. I thought that the trigger words that Sam Levinson picked were perfect. For her, it was “crazy.” For him, it was “mediocre.” Those were the hits that neither could get past. That, for me, was the most authentic part of Malcolm & Marie.

BY: And that was true to their characters right? Marie, with her history, and Malcolm, the filmmaker with a chip on his shoulder. And even then it felt like it was deftly wielded by the both of them. “Deftly” meaning that they knew exactly what they were doing to the other person by using those words. 

As I mentioned in our podcast review of Malcolm & Marie, this was the best of the lockdown movies we’d seen. Granted it was between this and HBO’s Locked Down, but Malcolm & Marie felt like a good version of what a quarantine movie can be. And expanding it to include something like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which wasn’t a lockdown movie but is shot and treated like a play, Malcolm & Marie felt better put together for some reason. The lines didn’t feel like bombastic stage monologues to a theatre audience. The entire movie feels like a moment in the lives of these two barely held together people.

Malcolm & Marie

UA: Oh wait. One more moment of cleverness from the script. I like the use of a romantic relationship to dissect the conflict between artist and critic. Those you love (and who love you) are supposed to be your cheerleaders, for better or for worse. And it was refreshing to see that lens (the right one) used as a trigger for self-reflection.

BY: I loved that moment as Malcolm is reading out the review from the white lady at the LA Times. It was the one moment of real warmth between them. Well atleast it was warmth from Marie towards Malcolm as he loses his mind at a great review but nitpicks at the little criticisms. Zendaya plays that beautifully. There’s love in her eyes. In the way she looks at this crazy fool pick apart the littlest of nits.

Also, that house is amazing. And the soundtrack is classy cool. Everything about it feels so amazingly well put together. It all fits. Even the black and white treatment never felt like a showy “art house” choice.

UA: It’s an accomplished work. No doubt. I think Sam Levinson has both a great eye and a great ear. But much like Euphoria, it just left me feeling a little cold. There are a lot of little things that I loved about this movie. I just wish it didn’t get lost in the grimdark of it all. 

Sidenote: Not many movies know how to make use of “In a Sentimental Mood.” But Malcolm & Marie nails it.

BY: Oh absolutely. It was such a perfect moment to pull out that song. Especially that version too. Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Perfect.

Malcolm & Marie is now streaming on Netflix.

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