Malcolm & Marie

Malcolm & Marie (2021)
★★ / ★★★★

At one point in the film, I was compelled to put my index fingers in my ears in an attempt to drown out the redundant screaming matches between John David Washington and Zendaya, the titular characters in Sam Levinson’s black-and-white relationship drama. Imagine Richard Linklater’s final fifteen minutes of “Before Midnight,” in which married couple Jesse and Celine belt out their deepest frustrations at one another, but dragged out for a hundred minutes, the dialogue lacking an ear for authenticity and flow, and the editing being so present that at times we are inadvertently taken out of intense moments and reminded we are only watching a movie. This is “Malcolm & Marie,” a massive disappointment because the leads are all in.

It is supposed to be night of celebration because Malcolm’s movie premiere is a success. But from the moment the couple steps into the house, Marie’s countenance suggests something is terribly wrong. We wonder what it could be. Did Malcolm do something wrong? Did an actor, producer, or film critic say something inappropriate to her during the after-party? Considering it is one o’clock in the morning, is it possible she’s simply exhausted? We look at Malcolm and wonder if he is even aware that his partner feels raw about something. No, he is too busy ranting about how white critics tend to write about movies made by black filmmakers. Marie steps outside for a smoke. But discerning viewers can tell she just wants to get away from her partner’s self-absorbed rant.

The early sequences of the film promises a drama that is not only exciting aurally but also visually. When there is mystery in a pointed glance, a hesitant response, how a body is angled relative to another, or the act of moving from one room to the next, the picture invites us to entertain possibilities; we are engaged, we question, we make assumptions. We make mistakes. We take note of Malcolm and Marie’s maddening and beautiful contradictions. Washington and Zendaya need not say a word at times; their rich facial expressions, the depth in their eyes, and how they command their bodies provide information on a constant state of evolution.

But the centerpiece of the work is the would-be heartbreaking arguments. They are so hyperbolic, characters end up spouting grand speeches. Cue the predictable close-ups of its leads, always capturing their best angles. By the third argument—about the same topic, no less—I thought, “People don’t talk or act like this in real life.” I felt disconnected. Halfway through, it becomes a real challenge to sit through because the dialogue, fiery on the surface, goes beyond polished and onto the realm of artificiality. It does not get better onwards. In fact, it gets stuck with a formula: Malcom gets angry, Marie counters, a resting period that suggests the two will find common ground (or have sex), Marie is triggered, Malcolm counters, rinse and repeat.

It’s all so tiring; I’d rather listen in on my neighbors fighting because at least a) they sound real and unscripted, b) they tend to fight about real issues like finances, division of labor, and parenting, and c) arguments, no matter how spirited, do not last an hour and forty minutes. Despite all the words on this script, it gives the impression it doesn’t have much of value to say. Why should we care about Malcolm and Marie, together or apart? Why is their story worth telling?

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