Arts and Entertainment

“Malcolm & Marie”: What Went Wrong?

Toxicity, abuse, addiction, and more: “Malcolm & Marie” covers it all in a saddening letdown.

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By Sabrina Chen

With beautiful shots, a great soundtrack, a talented cast, and a unique concept, Sam Levinson’s “Malcolm & Marie” was on track to be one of the best movies of 2021. So, what happened?

“Malcolm & Marie” begins with Marie Jones (Zendaya) and Malcolm Elliott (John David Washington) returning home from the premiere of Malcolm’s film “Imani.” As Malcolm talks about the people at the premiere and the film’s reception, it quickly becomes apparent that Marie is upset about something. Her apathetic responses to his conversation lead to the original premise of their fight: Malcolm didn’t thank her during his speech. From there, the situation devolves and their argument morphs into a battle over addiction, ungratefulness, movies, and more.

While “Malcolm & Marie” was definitely a film I wanted to enjoy, I found myself needing to watch it in multiple sittings. Several parts of the fight seemed very repetitive, which was intentional, but ineffective in producing a compelling story. They argue, come to an agreement, get affectionate, begin arguing again, and the cycle repeats. “Malcolm & Marie” felt very close to being something great, but the dialogue wasn’t engaging enough to achieve that. There simply aren’t enough topics for them to argue about, and the long speeches Malcolm and Marie deliver throughout the film were difficult to get through. This trend continues right up until the end of the film. There were several points where the movie meets a natural stopping point, only for another drawn out scene to follow. The story is well thought out and the arguments feel real, but the sheer length of the characters’ speeches dilutes any meaning that could have driven either of their points home.

Another shortcoming of the film lies in the actors’ performances. Washington comes off as very passionate, while Zendaya switches between passion and indifference. Malcolm spends the argument speaking without really thinking, often taking it too far, while Marie reserves her energy for points that have a big impact on him. By giving Malcolm seemingly many more lines than Marie, the film feels unbalanced and makes Marie feel like a less valuable character. Their attitudes definitely play into the power dynamic of the couple, fueled by their toxicity and age difference, but it feels unnatural on screen.

It was disappointing seeing “Malcolm & Marie” lose its direction over and over again. There were many heart-wrenching moments where the characters dig into each other’s flaws, saying horrible things they didn’t actually mean. Those moments are strong and could have made “Malcolm & Marie” a masterpiece, but so much of the movie doesn't evoke these emotions and instead felt lazy and underwritten. Much of the characters’ rhetoric felt overly scripted and insincere, especially when compared to the most powerful scenes in the film.

That’s not to say that it can’t be looked back on fondly. “Malcolm & Marie” is definitely unlike other movies from the past few years. The movie is shot on black-and-white film, and the cinematography stands out. Though the film’s minimalism was a byproduct of the pandemic, it adds to its uniqueness; having just one setting furthers the trapped feeling of the couple’s relationship. The cinematic choices of director Sam Levinson and director of photography, Marcell Rév—both of whom worked on “Euphoria”—are wonderful, delivering a visually stunning film. The close shots on each character’s face as they speak feel personal, and the moving shots give the film motion in such a small set. The cinematography is the main reason to keep watching “Malcolm & Marie,” but it doesn’t compensate for the flawed storyline.

While “Malcolm & Marie” is definitely not a favorite, it’s still a bearable watch. The aesthetics of the film are pleasing and, though the story has its problems, it’s still an emotional piece with some raw moments that are sadly bogged down by layers of melodrama and played out writing. “Malcolm & Marie” is definitely a great movie for cinematography nerds out there but not if you’re looking for a remarkable story.