‘Malcolm & Marie’ Review: The Definition of Pretentious, in All the Sorriest Ways

Dominic Miller/Netflix

It’s not Malcolm & Marie‘s rushed production schedule that doomed this unfortunate misfire of a film. It’s not the stars, both of whom have proven themselves solid performers elsewhere. Nor is it that the movie’s level of homage borders on ripoff, either; there’s nothing wrong with taking the bones of a seminal work like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and updating it with a modern sheen and sensibility. And it’s certainly not the age difference between its actors: to be overly concerned with a substantial age gap in legal, non-coercive relationships is a tiresome, small-minded misdirection of energy. No, these factors are not to blame. 

The culprit is almost entirely the script, penned by director Sam Levinson. Malcolm & Marie is a cacophonously arrogant piece of shifting tones, one that is full of insufferably contrived monologues, self-obsessed fetishizing of The Holy Filmmaker, and asinine melodrama for melodrama’s sake. Not even a single line of dialogue proves compelling. Most disappointingly, while these performers could surely be electric in a similar setup — one that didn’t chain them to such an abysmally written script — not a single moment of either Zendaya or John David Washington’s performances rises above the amateurish and overwrought. 

It’s all squarely and exhaustingly down to Sam Levinson’s profoundly immature and atonal mishandling of dialogue, rhythm, tone, lighting, editing, space, depth, shadow, sex, race, politics, cinema, and dialogue. Did I mention dialogue already? Well, it’s horrendous. Given how shallow and incoherent Levinson’s Assassination Nation was from start to finish, Malcolm & Marie‘s severe sloppiness should not be a total surprise, but it’s still hard to forgive such rapacious arrogance when a project like this could so easily have been great. 

Dominic Miller/Netflix

Washington plays Malcolm Elliott, a filmmaker overly proud of himself for making what he views as a masterpiece of cinema, one that he hopes will serve as his one-way ticket to artistic respectability. Zendaya plays Marie, Malcolm’s partner, and, as she argues, the secret basis for his film. Her own life and struggles share a telling number of similarities with the protagonist of his movie, but what really irks her is that, in his effusive speech at the film’s premiere that night, he failed to thank her by name.

As they enter their stark, wide-windowed home, small quips become blistering arguments, and off-hand references morph into entire treatises on sexuality, art, filmmaking, and so on. Scene to scene, the developing confrontations in Malcolm & Marie are so trite and predictable that it’s hard to believe either performer didn’t crack a smile while embodying the soulless husks these characterizations amount to. Both actors must have expected the parameters of this script to produce a solid piece of work, and they must surely have embraced the intermittent improvisational opportunities Levinson gave them — presumably under the impression that this project would respect or even elevate the perspectives of creative Black people like themselves. 

This could not be further from the truth. Not because Malcolm or Marie are problematic caricatures in themselves, but because Levinson has quite nakedly chosen to use two Black actors as amorphous vessels for his self-aggrandizing resentments. At best, their Blackness is irrelevant, and at worst, it’s a mortifyingly manipulative diversion meant to disguise his whiteness-inflected self-pity as an exercise in ‘liberating’ expression.

Despite whatever claim to individuality Zendaya and Washington may appear to boast in the film’s copious marketing materials, their characters come off as unrefined mouthpieces through which Levinson tries to ‘take on’ his personal quibbles with ‘people these days,’ especially those who do not perceive race or culture in a manner that ‘visionary director Sam Levinson’ finds sufficient. Within the first few minutes, Malcolm is wailing about his unique and complicated role as a Black filmmaker, with an indignation so searing and a bluntness so clumsy that it’s unmistakably based on Levinson’s own outrage that any critic has ever questioned his privileged artistic perspective. Even if one could argue that some of Marie’s barbed responses to Malcolm’s whines are attempts to address the outsized fauxteur-ish egoism at play, these moments are simply too little too late. With so much of its overlong runtime already spent fawning over Levinson’s persnickety gripes, slapping a few self-conscious remarks on top is not enough to un-ring that particular bell.

Dominic Miller/Netflix

Several astute pieces have already addressed the sheer boorishness of the racial politics involved here, and hopefully audiences will listen. It is frankly stunning that this needs to be explained at all. That this aspect of the film has gone unnoticed by so many is a worrying sign of how easily whiteness lays claim to authenticity and centrality as long as it appears packaged within a socially commendable camouflage. In other words, it doesn’t matter that both leads are Black. This film is still a snake in the grass like many others; one that hopes its viewers do not think hard enough to question its positionality, or have enough forethought to ask: cui bono? Who benefits?

Accounts suggest Zendaya contributed to developing Levinson’s initial idea for the film, and that “quarantine conversations” between the two helped get the ball rolling. Perhaps it might prove useful to forensically comb over which of the final product’s flaws are the result of Levinson’s choices and which stem from hers. But then again, even if one disregards its murky politics, Malcolm & Marie fails in most other cinematic regards as well. Not a single shot is lit in a competent fashion — unless “too dark” is your definition of competent — and the lighting only infrequently suits Washington’s skin tone. Aside from its content, the dialogue has no rhythm: it flits between agonizing navel-gazing and derivative impersonations of the loudest, least creative impulses of modern American theatre. This is a definitively pretentious movie, with every aspect creaking under weighty self-satisfaction in a way that only underscores its inferiority to smarter, leaner, and more inquisitive films with the exact same scope and aesthetic.

Levinson has mentioned that the movie’s mid-pandemic shoot used a skeleton crew that didn’t feature most of the typical on-set roles, including a script supervisor. That absence echoes through every clunky utterance, every garishly overlong diatribe, and every vacuous remark about what ‘people don’t understand’ about art and love. Unless you find yourself intrigued by what wisdom a stubborn white director has to impart to us regarding race in America — but really, regarding misunderstood male ‘visionaries’ whose default conversation mode is yelling — do not waste your time with this unimaginative fiasco.

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