Some of the most bittersweet, beautiful moments in cinema history have come from rambling, difficult-to-watch lovers’ spats. Quarrels can illuminate the rot in a relationship, and the best films about them illustrate the fine line between love and hate, want and need.
Malcolm & Marie is not one of those films. Billed as a story of a couple’s “romantic reckoning,” the movie, streaming now on Netflix, operates more as an exercise in patience. Malcolm (played by John David Washington) is a hotshot writer-director, and Marie (Zendaya), his girlfriend and muse. The two return home after the premiere of Malcolm’s latest project, a harrowing look at a young drug addict that “knocked the audience the fuck out,” Malcolm reports, thrilled. All night, critics have fawned over him. But in his speech, he forgot to thank Marie, whose life inspired the script, and as he dances around the house high on his success, she slinks away. “Nothing productive is going to be said tonight,” she warns him as he notices her mood and begins their fight.
She’s right: What ensues is a series of monologues, diatribes that go nowhere. He rants about her flaws, and then it’s her turn to tear him apart. On and on it goes, with the actors’ rapid-fire delivery producing nothing fiery in substance. This is not a reckoning. It’s a waste of talented stars, a stunning location, and gorgeous black-and-white photography. Made during the pandemic with a bare-bones crew, the script, from the writer and director Sam Levinson, overwhelms with its preachiness. Levinson, the creator of HBO’s Euphoria, who embarked on Malcolm & Marie with the series’ star, Zendaya, out of lockdown-induced restlessness, seems to use the titular couple as mouthpieces for a litany of his own gripes. He dissects not so much the problems with their romance, but the problems with, well, film criticism and Hollywood’s identity politics.