“Malcolm & Marie” may be televised in black and white, but its dramatic storyline displays a color wheel of human emotion. Starring Zendaya and John David Washington, Netflix’s latest film delivers a tour de force in cinematography and theatrics while simultaneously floundering in terms of storyline and emotional plausibility.
Written, directed and produced by Sam Levinson, “Malcolm & Marie” follows the argument and subsequent emotional tumult of a director and his girlfriend the night after his big movie premiere. After Malcolm Elliott, played by Washington, forgets to thank Marie Jones, played by Zendaya, in his speech at the premiere, tensions flare between the couple when they arrive home. Their conversation lasts for two hours and explores the depths of their relationship with great emotional nuance.
The filters and angles Levinson uses in “Malcolm & Marie” are easily the best part of the movie, showcasing his deft abilities as a director. His transitions and shots provide an intimate yet expansive canvas for Zendaya and Washington to portray their characters in a variety of different settings and moods. Utilizing the colorless environment to his advantage, Levinson masterfully transforms the singular setting of the film into a personal artistic portfolio of lines, shapes and gradients. Malcolm and Marie’s rural avant-garde home backdrops the plethora of arguments and reconciliations experienced by the two characters, adding layers of complexity to the scenes.
Zendaya and Washington both deliver emotionally captivating performances, bolstering each other’s talents in the process. The success of the movie hinges on the emotions of the characters, and the leads do not disappoint with their stirring portrayals. Zendaya especially stands out in her portrayal of the complex and enigmatic Marie, a recovered addict who yearns to be in movies despite her failed prior attempts to be an actress.
While the actors produce marvelous character work, the script they draw from could use an upgrade. Levinson excels at directing and producing this film, but he falls short on screenwriting. While he seems to intend on showcasing the complex relationship between two individuals, his work ultimately results in an exhausting and nonsensical string of screaming matches and impulsive reconciliations between the couple.
Despite top-notch emotional performances given by Zendaya and Washington, the film’s plot fails to create a powerful story that justifies such emotive responses. For example, a central aspect of the film’s melodramatic story revolves around both main characters continually reigniting the same, endless argument long after the sustained shouting has subsided. In reality, the partners would go to bed zapped of any energy or realize the fruitlessness of this debate after such frenzied and unrelenting anger. In the world of “Malcolm and Marie,” however, the characters seem just fine restarting their violent discord after singular and often sudden moments of passionate resolution.
The whole emotional context is utterly bizarre, as the two flit between extreme emotions, neither backing down in their feud except to spontaneously cry every half hour.
The biggest issue with the movie’s maelstrom of emotions, however, is that the characters randomly assert their love for each other amidst graphic ad hominem attacks that only portray the most pure form of hate imaginable. Putting the word “love” in this film in any context is a far cry from reality, as Levinson portrays this relationship as a breeding ground of toxicity and abhorrence on both sides.
By way of comparison, the highly acclaimed 2019 film “Marriage Story” featured many more moments of genuine love, as its storyline hinged on a torturous divorce between the leading couple played by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. It would have served “Malcolm & Marie” to follow this model of the breakdown of a long-term relationship rather than resorting to emotional spectacle.
It is, nonetheless, essential to reiterate that, while the characters’ emotions are not justified or rational, the actors do an incredible job of portraying Levinson’s vision, especially in conveying the terse, combative ambiance that persists throughout the film.
The synergy between the leads and Levinson’s camera produces an almost ethereal experience in which the events of the movie seem to transpire in a space between reality and the absurd. Unfortunately, however, all deeper meaning Levinson attempted to convey in this drama is lost due to the confusing and unrealistic nature of Malcolm and Marie’s emotional switchbacks.
While the film as a whole excels in presentation and performance, it struggles to find its footing in emotional credibility, causing the whole endeavor to come off as an almost unintentionally Kafka-esque saga.