If there's one thing to take away from Netflix's "Malcolm & Marie," it's this: When your significant other makes you mac and cheese at 1 in the
If there’s one thing to take away from Netflix’s “Malcolm & Marie,” it’s this: When your significant other makes you mac and cheese at 1 in the morning, maybe give them a break for the rest of the night.
A fictional filmmaker doesn’t heed that advice with his girlfriend, and the result is two indulgent hours of banter and arguments that do neither character any favors in writer/director Sam Levinson’s intimate black-and-white drama (★★ out of four; rated R; streaming on Netflix Friday). Filmed on the down low last summer during the pandemic, the middling two-handler features Zendaya and John David Washington as two lovers who need couples counseling way more than a night spent going several rounds in a vicious verbal knife fight.
What maybe was supposed to be a Millennial “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is instead a bunch of a meandering self-centered monologues and seething conversations that lean hateful, angry and ultimately empty.
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Following the premiere of his newest movie, a drama about a drug-addicted young woman who gets clean, Malcolm (Washington) returns home with his beloved Marie (Zendaya). She goes to the bathroom and then tends to their late-night snack, while he struts and dances around the place to James Brown. A “white lady from the L.A. Times” told him he’s the next Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins, so he’s on cloud nine. Marie, in the kitchen, is perturbed.
“Malcolm, I promise you, nothing productive is going to be said tonight,” she warns when he asks why she’s ticked off. Instead of moving on or going to bed, Malcolm doesn’t give it up – let’s just say the man’s not great at deescalation – and she obliges.
It turns out he thanked everybody at the event but Marie, and it’s the latest example of Malcolm taking her for granted. A former actress, Marie feels she’s responsible for a good amount of his success – how much, exactly, depends on who’s talking and which argument they’re having. As the night goes on, more of their repressed hard feelings come out and are used as weapons. And each one knows how best to hurt the other.
He calls her a clown, a featherweight and “genuinely unstable,” that last one while angrily pounding down mac and cheese. She calls him a fraud, a parakeet, a con artist, “the neediest man I’ve ever dated” and, worst of all (at least to him), mediocre.
It’s all a little much, and at the same time you don’t really get to know either Malcolm or Marie. There’s discussion of a longtime bond between them and sacrificing for each other, yet their relationship is more physical than deeply emotional, at least in the one night shown in the film.
The quieter scenes where each retreats back into the corner after a fight unlocks some of the best stuff: After one round, Marie silently changes clothes while Malcolm goes outside and kicks dirt, frantically mimicking fencing an invisible foe while muttering to himself. And when the L.A. Times “white lady’s” review comes in, which calls Malcolm’s film “a cinematic tour de force” and “genuine masterwork,” he takes offenseand launches into a hilarious, exhausting rant about art and criticism, calling the reviewer a “halfwit” for politicizing a film he believes leads with heart. (Sadly, the USA TODAY review apparently hadn’t gone online yet.)
Washington’s comedic timing and acting chops are obvious in playing a filmmaking man-child, and Zendaya is luminous as a woman who doesn’t deal with any of his nonsense. She’s absolute fire in one five-minute soliloquy where Marie says everything about their dynamic that Malcolm just can’t. (As collaborators on HBO’s hit “Euphoria,” Levinson definitely knows how to write for Zendaya.)
While both actors are game to take on Levinson’s lackluster material, they can only do so much. Marie knocks Malcolm on the fact that, unlike the trailblazing Lee and Jenkins, he doesn’t have anything to say. The same argument could be made of “Malcolm & Marie,” a movie with plenty of relationship venom and vitriol without any real bite.
At least Malcolm’s latest movie got a good review. Levinson’s, not so much.