Writer-director-producer Sam Levinson’s visually compelling film and self-financed film, “Malcolm & Marie,” was made during the pandemic and stars John David Washington (Malcolm) and Zendaya (Marie), who is one of the producers. They made it for 2.5 million and it sold to Netflix for $30 million.
The black-and-white drama set over the course of one long night is an examination of two deeply hurt people in a dueling monologue where old grievances are constantly unearthed.
This examination of this dysfunctional relationship is done inside a luxury rental somewhere in Hollywood. They are both self-involved people creating a mood so depressing it makes you pause, ponder and ask yourself — oh God, is that what I look like when I have an argument with my significant other but with a soundtrack to highlight the lows and highs?
James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City” floats through the film as Malcolm a rising filmmaker shakes off his anxiety dancing across the living room with a style that suggests, I belong here and here is a perpetual state of luxury being admired and well paid.
It’s his night, he’s just returned with his stunning girlfriend, from a successful premiere, and he’s feeling himself, high-high-high on his own steam. Is he as good as he thinks he is? Hell yes, he screams with every line and everybody movement. He’s peacocking which irks Marie.
Marie is complicated. Beautiful and layered, a former drug addict whose horrific experiences inspired Malcolm’s film, and she’s furious because — wait for it — he forgot to thank her, during his acceptance speech.
The question looms, which is, how much more can she take? She’s filling fast with resentment and about to unload on her unsuspecting partner. This would be brand new behavior. She’s not one to stick up for herself. To that end, she carefully listens to his rant which evaporates into his hatred for “those” film critics who define him by his Blackness. I get it. He has a meltdown in an almost 10-minute tantrum, not unlike a spoiled child. But later, when one of “those” critics (Los Angeles Times) praises him he’s ecstatic.
A failed actress, Marie asks him why he didn’t cast her in his movie, the very one that she inspired?
Spotlight on his soul, Malcolm turns on Marie, telling her she’s not special and assuring her that the character, in his brilliant film, is not based on her. He asserts that it’s an amalgam of all the deeply damaged women he has known. She’s wounded which was his intention the moment he opened his mouth.
But it’s at this point, that we can see that Malcolm is deeply insecure giving a picture for the saying: hurt people, hurt people. That’s Malcolm, a hurt person trying to give more pain to Marie. It’s at this point, I feel, that the film turns itself into a mirror and if you are honest with yourself (and I am), I’ve had a few Malcolm & Marie moments.
Marie is the underdog but you have to ask, why? Why is she taking this amount of abuse? She’s drop-dead gorgeous, and strong because she’s no longer using drugs. So why stay with an ungrateful man?
Zendaya is stunning in her performance and allows us an important glimpse of what Marie’s suffering feels like.
“Malcolm & Marie” — maybe, on the surface, to be asking what, if any, does a storyteller has to its muse. But what I think it’s really about is what amount of abuse will one person take to feel validated.
Here, Hollywood fills in that space and, Hollywood is glamorous. Hollywood pays ridiculous amounts of (validation) money and creates stars pumping them up with hope and then can (and often does) systemically tear them down. These are facts. So the question in “Malcolm & Marie” is will these equally damaged people find their self-worth in time, and by extension will the universal “I/me/you”?
“Malcolm & Marie” now playing on Netflix.