Malcolm & Marie movie review: A handful of brilliant scenes cannot save this talkathon
In one of many scenes where Malcolm talks about authenticity in films, he says, "Cinema doesn’t need to have a message. It needs to have a heart and electricity." Wish this film had a bit of that.
When the film Malcolm & Marie was announced, I presumed it had to do something with the human rights activist, since Denzel Washington, the father of this film's lead John David Washington, played the titular lead in the film Malcolm X. Then, the promotional materials arrived and proved me wrong. But interestingly, Malcolm & Marie does quote the 1992 film's director Spike Lee more than a couple of times as well as some prolific Black filmmakers of this century. Unfortunately, these are the only sequences that stand out in this 200-minute talkathon.
Cast: Zendaya, John David Washington
Director: Sam Levinson
Streaming on: Netflix
Right after coming back home from his first film premiere as a director, Malcolm (Washington) and his wife Marie (Zendaya) discuss the evening which eventually leads to topics such as films, the society, their relationship, their early days, and much more. As we buckle up to know more about this couple, we're introduced to a series of tirades and verbal blows mixed with emotional monologues and making out sessions.
Any chamber drama that revolves around a few characters, relies on long dialogues and multiple cuts to save us from the fatigue of seeing the same faces for hours. But despite ticking those boxes, Malcolm & Marie still ends up being quite a tiring watch. This likely has to do with the wafer-thin conflict. Director Sam Levinson opts for an ambiguous approach to his storytelling and as the film progresses, we're given nibbles of information on why an amazing evening doesn't pave the way to a similar night. We are told that Malcolm, at the premiere's speech, thanked everyone under the sun except his partner Marie, and when we think that's the reason for the latter not sharing the same energy and joy as Malcolm, we realise there is more to it. We are then told Malcolm's lead character bears a striking resemblance to Marie's dark days, and she was rightfully displeased for not getting due recognition.
As the story moves forward, we're meant to be told why a supposed night of celebration doesn't end up as one, but what we get is a botched attempt at dissecting the very essence of the relationship the couple share. We're left with long sequences of two brilliant actors mouthing some lengthy, lovely, thought-provoking, and sometimes, trash-talking lines.
The film, at times, bites more than it can chew. An array of interesting topics are thrown at us and while we're still fumbling with these in our heads, we're asked to concentrate on new ones. That said, both Washington and Zendaya bring out their A-game for what must be two of the toughest roles, not just for them but any actor. As a couple living under the same roof yet distant, they get through all the emotions known to humankind in a span of hours. The contrast between the characters, that fit perfectly like the yin and yang symbol, should have made way for a performance showdown, but the limitations of the story make them hollow representations of a couple in distress.
The film does have some brilliant moments — like the part where Malcolm rips through a review for his film by a white woman who hasn't been able to see the end product without her political lens. In one of the very few moments in the film where the couple actually agree upon a certain topic, we are also introduced to a few laughs when one of them says that a black director cannot even direct a LEGO film without it being considered an allegory for the failures of reconstruction of America.
Shot in black and white, the aesthetic imaging makes us tend to notice every single pixel of the frame and the dual colours also act as a representation of the couple who are, at their best, grey-shaded characters. All these would've borne fruit had it been a short film. When the fights get repetitive, we tend to lose interest. In one of many scenes where Malcolm talks about authenticity in films, he says, "Cinema doesn’t need to have a message. It needs to have a heart and electricity." Only if this film had a bit more of both these aspects, Malcolm & Marie would've been a more intriguing watch.