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Saturday, June 19, 2021
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John David Washington and Zendaya play conflicting lovers in Sam Levinson's Netflix original "Malcolm & Marie."

'Malcolm & Marie' features strong performances amid scattered pacing

We’ve seen black-and-white features make a comeback over the past few years as directors strive to make their films seem more artistic and visionary. While there’s no denying that Sam Levinson’s “Malcolm & Marie” looks good on screen, the director seems to think that the eye-catching imagery and his actors’ performances are enough to sway us.

Set entirely in one house during the course of one night, Zendaya and John David Washington portray the title characters, who for the entire duration dissect their relationship at great lengths, causing both a greater connection between the two in addition to more hostility.

Malcolm is a rising filmmaker, who after receiving an award for his debut feature has to come to terms with forgetting to thank Marie in his acceptance speech, a mistake that reflects a deeper, more problematic weakness in their relationship. Early on, we can tell that Malcolm is plagued by narcissism and the desperate need to be embraced as an artist, while Marie’s dark past of drug addiction, isolation and suicidality prevents her from embracing love. 

It’s not easy to say by the end of the film whether or not Malcolm and Marie are a healthy couple and that they should be together. Not once do we take one’s side over the other, for we’re easily able to recognize the flaws in both characters. Levinson teases us by expressing his two characters’ sincere attraction to one another, yet we can’t help but wonder if these two people are together for convenience and support or are truly in love with one another.

If it weren’t for the captivating performances by the two leads, close to nothing would have worked about this film. Zendaya, collaborating with Levison after the hit HBO series “Euphoria,” once again captures the soul of a broken woman desperate for recognition and belonging, while Washington, at times mirroring the style of his great father Denzel, delivers fiery energy from start to finish. 

The two leads know how to connect with their audience, bringing vulnerability and passion to the screen despite not given much material to explore outside of arguing and making up with each other constantly. While there’s no denying the talent of the two actors, Levinson writes his characters poorly at times, one scene in particular in which Malcolm goes on an extensive rant about Hollywood culture and how it relates to race and gender being too forced and draining to watch. 

Attempting to make the film more than just about a relationship, “Malcolm & Marie” resorts to preaching about the culture of modern-day entertainment and comes across as more pretentious than insightful. Similarly to its social commentary, the black-and-white imagery proves rather useless, once again used as a way to seek style as a distraction from the story. 

What truly weighs “Malcolm & Marie” down is that from start to finish there is no progress in the conflict. Watching this film is like accidentally stumbling across an argument between a couple and not being able to escape. The entire film seems to stay in one place — literally and figuratively — causing the viewing to be tiring and flat-out boring for much of the film. Many scenes feel misplaced, one sequence in particular that feels like the climax where everything comes together is featured in the middle of the film, making the rest of the story feel empty and repetitive. 

Since we really don’t know much about either character other than what they do or some of the struggles they had in the past, it becomes challenging to connect with either and truly understand what they’re going through as human beings. The surface is scratched as to who Malcolm and Marie are as people but after constant arguing, we’re left feeling relieved that the film ends rather than desperate to learn what’s next for the two characters. 

Final Grade: B-

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