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The Cougar Reviews: ‘Malcolm & Marie’ misses the mark

Malcolm & Marie movie Juana Garcia/The Cougar

Juana Garcia/The Cougar

Sam Levinson’s recently released romantic drama “Malcolm & Marie” begins with just over one minute of credits on the screen. It’s almost as if Levinson desires for the viewer to wholly appreciate an aura of calm in the moments leading up to what can only be described as a 90-minute melodramatic argument between the film’s two main characters.

The opening seconds are actually quite bizarre to tell the truth.

Malcolm, played by John David Washington, a promising young director, and Zendaya’s Marie, Malcolm’s girlfriend, arrive home from the premiere of Malcolm’s newest film, and it quickly becomes glaringly obvious – to everyone except Malcolm – that the couple share absolutely none of the same wavelength on this particular evening. 

Marie’s face and short answers say it all; she is a woman scorned.

Her passive indignation is a result of Malcolm forgetting to thank her in his speech at the premiere, despite the fact that it was her own struggles with addiction and self-harm that partially inspired Malcolm’s creation of the film’s main character.

Just like that, we’re off to the races. The gloves come entirely off on both sides.

There’s something else you should know: Malcolm is kind of a jerk. Not in the traditional sense, but rather, he is an artist who is fully committed to being perceived as an artist by everyone else, and we all, unfortunately, know someone like that.

Malcolm’s general sense of aloofness comes early in the film, pertaining to both his inability to pick up on Marie’s feelings as well the fact that he himself is college-educated, but sees education as a negative thing when it comes to those who critique him. This is the first clue Levinson leaves us that Malcolm isn’t quite all the way present.

What’s worse is the fact that Marie is making macaroni and cheese for Malcolm. As if he is a small, needy child. We find out later that, to a certain extent, he is.

Though it’s clear that Marie is not only Malcolm’s muse, but a solidified and necessary factor in his everyday life, he has absolutely no problem coming to blows the second she lays a finger on his glass ego. Which is to say, they fight. My god. They fight.

It seems that Marie knows exactly what buttons to press to get Malcolm going. She’s capable of dissecting his thought patterns and actions in the snap of a finger, and knows exactly why he does what he does, but still wants to hear him say it.

It’s an early reveal of a flaw in a plot that sees Marie participate in an argument she is quite frankly above. She’s so intelligent that at times, it feels like Steve Jobs is arguing with an iPhone. 

You instantly get the impression that this is not the first major fight Malcolm and Marie have gone through.

They are two artists, both young and highly sensitive. Concurrently, it also seems evident early on that this fight will be the one that either makes them or destroys them at their core, obliterating their relationship and perhaps even creating the risk of an actual physical altercation.

While that fortunately never occurs, their argument still reaches damaging enough levels to the point where it feels unrealistic at times; like when Malcolm rattles off the names of his ex-partners who intimately inspired his film just as much, if not more, than his relationship with Marie.

In Malcolm’s eyes, Marie likes it. It’s one of her worst qualities and something that has put a stronghold on their relationship.

The scene is the first time in the film that you feel Malcolm truly sees Marie, and it’s unfortunate that it occurs while he is cutting her down, highlighting for her the worst parts of their relationship, while simultaneously reminding her of the lowest points in her life.

Sure, the scene ends with Malcolm finally telling Marie what aspects of his character she inspired, which seems to strike an emotional chord in Marie. But who cares? Isn’t that still textbook toxicity? Weirdly, it seems like Malcolm gets credit for this and that makes me shiver. 

For much of the film, you simply want Malcolm to be gentle with his girlfriend, who is clearly fragile after a lifetime of damaging events. But he won’t be because, like I said earlier, he is not really a good person. 

Eventually, you begin to have a hard time believing that all of this is simply over a botched speech.

It’s then revealed that Marie is also upset because Malcolm did not cast her in his film’s main role. Malcolm essentially says Marie does not work hard enough and the two duke it out a bit more. But even this reasoning doesn’t feel like enough to keep them up into the wee hours of morning scrapping harder than Iron Man and Captain America in “Captain America: Civil War.”

The relationship dynamic being explored between Malcolm and Marie is not a new one in cinema.

A young, broken girl falls in love with an older artist who “saves” her with his patience and grace while using her for inspiration in the process. The issue is that in Levinson’s flick, like in almost every other project that has explored this dynamic, the male character just comes across as arrogant and self-righteous, even in the moments his heart is supposed to be revealed.

Because of this, it sometimes appears that Malcolm is stuck in one gear, but that’s also due to the fact that the script asks for a wide range of emotions that John David Washington, as an actor, is not yet capable of portraying.

For someone that many film fans predicted could take up the role of the next Black Panther, it’s peculiar to see Washington go so far in the opposite direction, away from the action genre.

At times, the film feels like a simple collection of monologues that would have made for a much better stage play than a movie. While each monologue is extremely well-written, so is the dictionary. 

Zendaya clearly gets the better of Washington, and it only makes sense.

She was already acting when Washington was still playing ball at The House.” But what does it mean to get the better of someone in a feature-length argument? Zendaya is the better fighter? Sure, if that’s what people want to hear. 

Much like the creation and purchase of “Malcolm & Marie,” the ending of this story occurs in the blink of an eye. Things end unsettled, or at the very least, interpretive to the viewer. A plot that is likely triggering for many still feels no desire to reward its viewers for sticking around.

While it initially seems that there would be a conclusive ending to the battle between Malcolm and Marie, Levinson, I suppose, simply ran out of ink.

The cast and crew of “Malcolm & Marie” clearly wanted to get back to work during the pandemic and I cannot blame them at all for that.

If anything, the average fan of film should watch “Malcolm & Marie” purely to see how a pandemic movie should be produced. Levinson has successfully created a lockdown film that quickly makes you forget it is a lockdown film. 

Unfortunately, that may be the movie’s best quality.

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