Review: ‘Malcolm & Marie’ confirms Zendaya and John David Washington as major talents

I like movies that are based on plays, or that resemble them. Movies where characters sit in a room and talk endlessly. Showcases for actors, heavy with dialogue and a tendency toward big performances. Malcolm & Marie, the new film by Sam Levinson starring John David Washington and Zendaya is not based on a play, but it does resemble one.

Taking place over a single night and featuring a single location, the story follows the titular Malcolm and Marie as they arrive home from attending a movie premiere. Malcolm has written and directed a film to great acclaim, and Marie is visibly unhappy. What should be a night of celebration ends up being a blowout fight, in which they exchange blows to each other’s emotional soft spots and vulnerabilities.

Suffice to say that it feels in many ways true to life. The way that the fight ebbs and flows, that they bounce between affection and vitriol, if you have ever been in a long term relationship, then this is a fight that will feel familiar.

It is also the films weak spot, in that the screenplay bounces around between subjects a little too frequently, and the characters dialogue is precise, formal, and over the top in a way that real fights only ever are on stage. That is to say, that if you prefer your films to be drenched in realism rather than a slightly heightened reality, your mileage may vary. The film is also a little on the long side, which wouldn’t be a complaint if the fight wasn’t so intense.

Zendaya and John David Washington / Malcolm & Marie

All of these complaints are minor when stacks dup against the performances. Both Washington and Zendaya are excellent in this, with each of them getting monologues big and small (in every sense of the words), loud and quiet, and each of them is more intense than the last. Despite the 12 year age gap between them, they are a convincing couple, both co-dependant and narcissistic. Washington never sounds more like his father than when he is yelling passionate dialogue, and Zendaya proves that her best actress Emmy win this past year was no fluke. She slips so easily between aggressive, nurturing, and vulnerable, and it’s clear that her star has really only just begun to rise.

The film also looks gorgeous, shot in 35mm black and white film that makes everything, even mac & cheese, looks completely sumptuous. Director Sam Levinson and cinematographer Marcell Rév’s camera work is dynamic, following the characters around the beautiful house they used as a location in smooth, lengthy takes. It’s only February, and it’s hard to imagine a better-looking film this year.

Conceived and shot during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Malcolm & Marie is a film as much about filmmaking as it is about anything else, with the characters debating the nuances of the authorship of film Malcolm has created, who the story belongs to, and how it is and should be interpreted. The subject matter won’t be something that everyone can relate to, but the fight itself is, and the performances are so sincere and raw that everyone should be able to find something to like in this film.

Malcolm & Marie is available on Netflix now.


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