Directed by: Sam Levinson
Starring: John David Washington, Zendaya
Available on Netflix
Rated R, 106 minutes
Few filmmakers have had as durable a legacy as John Cassavetes. He may be relatively unknown compared to other filmmakers of his era, like Spielberg or Kubrick, but if you’ve enjoyed movies like David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” or Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” dialogue-heavy movies that explore the messy interior lives of their characters, then you’ve encountered his influence..
John David Washington and Zendaya star in “Malcolm & Marie.” (Courtesy photo)
“Malcolm & Marie,” Sam Levinson’s (“Assassination Nation”) new drama with a cast of two, is an exercise in Cassavetes worship. With its long takes and intense confrontations between the title couple, it evokes nothing so much as Cassavetes’ 1968 opus, “Faces.” This is mostly to the film’s detriment; Levinson, who also wrote the film, isn’t as deft a writer as Cassavetes; his dialogue more heavy-handed and less profound. His movie is well composed and passionately acted, but it lacks the rawness it strives for. It’s hard, watching “Malcolm & Marie,” to forget that we’re watching actors at work.
Beginning when Malcolm and Marie return from the premiere of Malcolm’s newest film, the movie follows a single extended argument that lasts late into the night. Malcolm forgot to thank Marie in his speech; she feels used by him, her traumatic life story cannibalized for his movie. He criticizes her for giving up her acting dreams, for having no plan in life. They fight while he eats, they fight while she takes a bath and smokes cigarettes, they fight in bed and on the floor and on the patio. Whenever they make up, Levinson pipes in soft music to transition to the next leg of the fight.
For all their differences, the inability to leave well enough alone is the quality that both characters share. Even when they hurl cruel insults at one another, neither shrinks away from the argument, unwilling to cede the last word. John David Washington (“Tenet”) and Zendaya (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”) are a capable pair for this test of endurance, Washington’s commitment to Malcolm’s manic tendencies tempered by Zendaya’s reserved, seething Marie. Zendaya stands out especially, not only earning our sympathy (Malcolm’s verbal attacks often stoop to vicious lows) but also piquing our curiosity, her enigmatic line delivery hinting at what Marie has decided to leave unsaid.
Their debate is largely about the authenticity of storytellers who tell other peoples’ stories—in this case, Malcolm’s telling of Marie’s story. The movie never answers the question of what it means to be authentic, but Malcolm rants plenty on the subject, arguing that realism and accuracy matter less than feeling. Of course, this question of authenticity invites scrutiny into Levinson himself, a white man ranting through a Black character’s mouth about the experience of Black people in Hollywood. The movie is sensitive to this seeming impropriety, although if Levinson tells on himself at all, it’s in Malcolm’s repeated frustrations with a white film critic, an obsession that would have you think Malcolm rarely has thoughts that aren’t about white people.
The larger problem with “Malcolm & Marie” isn’t the questionable philosophy behind their fight, but rather the staleness of their conflict. Levinson’s treatment of this simple story is stylized with moody lighting and symbolically weighty shot compositions and melodramatic dialogue, all adding up to an atmosphere of affected theatricality. But by the end, we realize that neither character actually has much to say; for all its glamour and stylishness, the movie leaves us indifferent to the couple’s future.
Even if Levinson’s clumsiness as a writer drags the movie down, his intensely personal approach to the lovers’ quarrel still produces a few moments of devastating clarity. In one scene, Malcolm goes outside for fresh air, muttering the things he would really like to say to Marie while viciously punching the air; he returns inside and professes his love to her in a whisper. In another scene, she reminds him that while he can move on from his film, she has to keep living with the trauma that inspired it; he calls her jealous and walks away. These moments are bright, but infrequent. More often, “Malcolm & Marie” is exhausting in its exhibition of toxicity played out to bitter extremes. It’s an earnest attempt to explore something larger, to find out what compels people to seek love in unwilling or incapable partners, but like his ceaselessly fighting characters, Levinson doesn’t know when to let up.
Danny Eisenberg grew up in Harvard and has been reviewing movies for the Harvard Press since 2010. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.