Malcolm & Marie (2021)

Zendaya and John David Washington star in "Malcolm & Marie" (image courtesy Netflix) 



Zendaya, John David Washington

Directed by Sam Levinson

If an actor is only as good as the source material, “Malcolm & Marie” speaks volumes for Sam Levinson. The writer-director's new film takes its cues from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” as deep-seated feelings come to the surface during an argument between Los Angeles filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington) and his actress-girlfriend Marie (Zendaya). Blazing performances by the actors keep you enthralled as the couple goes for the jugular during the convincing verbal assault that could only derive from real-life.

Shot in black and white on 16mm Kodak Double X stock — known for the amount of contrast it delivers — the grainy film resembles an artsy Chanel No. 5 commercial. From Zendaya and Washington to the glass-walled Caterpillar House, to the stunning landscapes illuminating the darkness of night, beauty is all around. This includes a bowl of Kraft Mac N Cheese prepared by Marie which, thanks to cinematographer Marcell Rév, resembles a Wolfgang Puck dish infused with lobster sauce and truffles. But just like the stock the film was shot on; the contrast is high between the elegance surrounding the couple and the ugliness spewing from their mouths.

The film opens as the couple returns home from the celebratory premiere of Malcolm’s new film. Gauging from his ecstatic temperament, heightened by James Brown’s “Down & Out in New York City,” it was a huge success. Music plays an important role in Levinson’s film as it often reflects the tone of our protagonists.

Marie isn’t feeling Malcolm’s euphoria and there’s a valid reason. It may seem trivial at first — he forgot to thank her during a big speech at the premiere — but as the jabs are thrown and confessions professed, it becomes evident that Marie played a substantial role in Malcolm’s new film. As a former drug addict, she feels it’s her life story on the screen. Malcolm disagrees but admits that she was a major inspiration — as were his past relationships — in crafting the main character.

To make matters worse, Marie is an actress and so the question arises, “Why didn’t Malcolm cast her as the lead of his new film?” Regardless of his reasoning, the bottom line is that Marie should have been acknowledged with a simple “thank you” at the film’s premiere. Thus, begins the outset of an argument that consumes the majority of the film’s running time.

“Malcolm & Marie” marks the first adult role for 24-year-old Zendaya who’s grown up before our eyes. The age difference (12 years) between her and co-star John David Washington doesn’t play a factor in the narrative, nor should it. Malcolm may be older but he’s not wiser. Marie is way more mature than her filmmaking boyfriend and when I picture her at 36 and Malcolm at 48, I imagine a different dynamic. One where Marie is in charge of greenlighting Malcolm’s projects.

Over the course of the story Malcolm blasts film critics who use the word “authentic” in their reviews, so I’ve avoided it here although it’s evident by the depths these characters sink down to during the nasty argument that Levison is bringing experience to the game. It’s true the writer-director based “Malcolm & Marie” on a disagreement he had with his wife Ashley (co-producer of the film) after forgetting to thank her at an event. It didn’t escalate to the point of the film’s quarrel but anyone who’s ever been in a relationship with history behind it can attest to the validity of the exchange between the two characters.

Washington continues his hot streak that includes “BlacKkKlansman” and last year’s “Tenet” while Zendaya delivers a groundbreaking and Oscar-worthy performance that will forever cast the actress in a new light.

Watching these two go at it for a good 90 minutes is never exhausting. Although not everyone will have the same experience. “Malcolm & Marie” resonates strongest with anyone who's sailed through turbulent waters while navigating the sea of relationship tranquility. As someone who has been married for almost 30 years and who can relate to these characters after being in a similar situation a long time ago, I can attest that there is nothing superficial about Levinson’s film. He nailed it.

For those who can’t relate, don’t sweat it. Levinson is on point. Just enjoy the fantastic performances by Zendaya and John David Washington. If I was teaching acting, “Malcolm & Marie” would be a prerequisite. 

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. 

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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