Love and Carnage
By Noah Gittell
In every long-term relationship, there are things you do not say. Observations that confirm your partner’s worst fears about themselves, or a slice of your own secret history that would change the way they look at you. Maybe even make them stop loving you. The protagonists in Sam Levinson’s “Malcolm & Marie”, a ferocious two-hander chronicling a relationship in crisis, make the mistake of saying some of those things, and once they do, they can’t stop telling the truth.
It starts with a moment every Hollywood couple fears. Malcolm (John David Washington), an ascendant writer-director on the verge of his first mainstream hit, forgets to thank his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) at the premiere. Marie, who has supported him throughout his slow climb to the top, is understandably vexed. Malcolm apologizes, but it’s not enough. Under the pressure of a late night and a few too many cocktails, the crack in their relationship expands into a chasm, and soon the couple is excavating the dark underbelly of their love, as well as Malcolm’s work, with brutal honesty.
With its gorgeous black-and-white photography and acute verbal cruelty, “Malcolm & Marie” is clearly influenced by “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Levinson, however, is no Edward Albee, and too often the characters come off as competing voices in the writer’s head, rather than fully-fledged human beings. This is especially true during Malcolm’s repeated diatribes against film critics, especially the “white lady from the LA Times,” whose review he is pinning his hopes on. As Malcolm comically rails against those who might dare to judge his work, Marie quietly pokes holes in his inflated ego. These moments might offer a rare glimpse into the neurotic mind of an artist struggling with criticism, but they do little to advance our understanding of their relationship. It seems a product of a screenplay written quickly — “Malcolm & Marie” was conceived and shot during lockdown — with an artist’s subconscious in charge.
The rest of the time, however, “Malcom & Marie” is riveting. Precisely paced, the story unfolds as a championship battle, with its actors circling one another and trading knockout punches. They’re a fascinating pair to watch, with each given room to bring their own sensibility to Levinson’s flowery dialogue. Washington feeds off its rat-a-tat energy, turning both the pages-long monologues and quiet moments of defiance into acts of physicality. He bounces around the room like a caged animal, locating the primal rage behind Levinson’s profane eloquence. It brings a sense of action to the dialogue-driven script.
Zendaya gets off a few of her own fireworks, but her best moments are in reacting, in absorbing Malcolm’s blows, gathering her strength, and preparing to return fire. At first, Marie seems weak and defenseless against the pumped-up Malcolm; she spends most of the film in various state of undress, underlining her vulnerability, and at one point Malcolm threatens to “snap her like a twig.” But the physical discrepancy is a set-up, as Marie proves more than capable of punching above her weight class, and Zendaya’s layered performance, which makes you question whether her emotional frailty is real or just a rope-a-dope maneuver, keeps us on the hook.
It’s often a tough watch, but everyone loves a train wreck. Despite the carnage, “Malcolm and Marie” never becomes unbearable. Washington and Zendaya still make us believe that these characters care about each other, and that this violent process is just a long route back to love. It’s a testament to the actors’ chemistry that we believe it and to Levinson’s skillful direction that we don’t get turned off in the meantime. “Malcolm and Marie” is terribly sad, but it’s also funny and sexy and tender and scary and hilarious and undeniably watchable. It’s cinema reduced to its primal form. Put two young and beautiful stars in a room and corrupt them with the same ugliness that poisons us all. Who wouldn’t want to watch that?
<“Malcolm & Marie” is now streaming on Netflix.>