Netflix has been flexing its muscles quite a bit lately churning out some pretty decent to great movies since its promise to release at least one film a week throughout the year, but possibly its most divisive movie so far in 2021 is “Malcolm & Marie”. Reactions to this film have been all over the place with some calling it a pretentious mess and others praising its emotional depth. Filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic with a small 20-person crew and starring only John David Washington and Zendaya as the titular couple, the movies chronicles a night-long series of arguments between the two on a night after Malcolm’s big film premiere. “Malcolm & Marie” might have split critics down the middle but for me it’s yet another Netflix film in early 2021 that in my opinion not only captures a very human experience but also flips a pretty sly and unapologetic middle finger to the industry and critics like me who act like we know what we’re talking about.
“Malcolm & Marie” depends solely on the performances of its leads, John David Washington and Zendaya, who most people seem to agree are excellent in this film. The camera is on them the whole time as they travel from room to room, argument to argument in a fluid display of chaos. Throughout the evening we see these two argue about love, the art of filmmaking, how these two inspire and infuriate each other and watch them delve into some pretty interesting territory in terms of abuse with each of them having a chance to pretty brutally destroy each other on very personal levels. It’s the exchanges and fluid delivery along with the uncompromising, and, yes, I’ll admit pretty pretentious script written by director Sam Levinson that drew me in right from the first scene and never let me go. At first it feels like this is going to be 106 minutes of two people just having a relationship squabble, but over the course of that time it becomes an engaging debate of two confident but broken people that, honestly, sounds like a debate any two people could have with or without the sexual tension wearing its characters’ self-importance on its sleeve.
Where I think “Malcolm & Marie” is so divisive is how hard it tries to be heard and the harsh remarks not just between its characters but directed at critics and the industry. Malcolm spends I think ten or so minutes on one spectacular rant against a critic, bashing writers for their lack of insight or understanding into the art of filmmaking focusing specifically on the pandering writers tend to incorporate in their pieces concerning the racial subtext of movies in modern day. He asks why films by black people can’t just be for fun and debates whether or not the sexual or racial identity of a person or their gender should play a part in a film’s meaning or significance. On the surface any critics would feel attacked by these statements since they hold nothing back, but when you dig deeper you realize, thanks to an equally harsh breakdown of Hollywood elitism by Marie, that this rant makes Malcolm just as self righteous as those he criticizes, exposing a vicious cycle of hypocrisy that has seemingly permanently compromised artistic integrity. I can admit this rant and the many like it in the movie can feel too on the nose, trying too hard to hammer home critiques thus committing the same sins as the critics and actors the film seeks to call out. This irony to me actually makes the film that much more fascinating and Malcolm and Marie’s conversations that much more enjoyable. Do we deny these characters the right to speak their minds as many do the Hollywood elite? Do we chalk the writing up as self-important as we do the critics? Or do we see ourselves in these people, something I actually ended up feeling even as a self described critic, and realize that we are all part of that cycle of hypocrisy? How one interprets these rants may define how they enjoy, or dislike, this film as a whole.
Beyond that subtext though I also found “Malcolm & Marie” to be a visceral examination of a damaged relationship between two people so bad for each other, but also so perfect for each other because their flaws fit like a sadistic puzzle of masochism. Their hatred of each other fuels their love and respect for each other and the sad part is this isn’t just how a Hollywood relationship works. There are countless relationships out there just like this one and many people either suffer or find painful joy from this kind of affair. On one hand it exposes the abuse that can happen between people behind closed doors without directly labeling either one as being better or worse than the other. Both Malcolm and Marie are simultaneously horrible and selfish, but supportive and understanding. They are, for the most part, rather complex although I’ll admit that it can be hard to imagine how their relationship could have ever lasted if this night is part of their normal routine, which is implied. On the other hand this could easily be an exchange between two individuals in today’s divided world. Two egos facing off in a never-ending contest of “who knows best” where winning really has no value beyond being right, but then what is the point in the end? The black and white coloration, to me at least, helped further define this idea of divided perspectives placing specific emphasis on how nothing in this world really is that black and white, it’s more complex than that.
The irony of my review doesn’t escape me and I’m sure you could argue that I sound just like one of those know-it-all-but-really-knows-nothing critics that Malcolm despises in the film who tries to find deeper meaning maybe where there is none. But “Malcolm & Marie” also makes a point that movies as an art form are open to interpretation. My respect for this movie’s jabs against both film critics and the Hollywood elite is simply how I feel while the film’s content and writing may not come off as insightful or appropriate to someone else. In my eyes I felt delightfully attacked and yet also understood since I can see a lot of myself in both of these people and have been on both sides of similar arguments either about love, life or art. That relatability is what helped me see this as a well-crafted “fly on the wall” kind of film where we get to see the good, the bad and the ugly of both modern relationships and American opinion sharing on full display in an uncompromising package that wears its subtext like a badge and is driven by two spectacular performers that give it their all. With respect to those who find this movie emotionless, insufferable or even insulting, I personally think it’s a film that says what needs to be said, adds some genuine humanity to the issues at hand and shows a great blend of both constraint and chaos in how it presents its story. In spite of what many would consider as flaws, I found it to be quite the gripping experience with the right balance of cynicism and self-awareness to warrant my respect.