In the Academy Award–winning 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a troubled married couple invites a pair of virtual strangers to their house after a party. The couple then proceed to verbally tear each other apart in front of their guests, casting themselves as the dysfunctional stars of an abusive tableau that terrifies and embarrasses the invitees. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the audience is watching the story of the couple and the people upon whom they’ve chosen to inflict their issues, but in Sam Levinson’s new Netflix film Malcolm & Marie, the audience takes on the role of the guests — random people who’ve stumbled upon the shitshow relationship of the century and can’t quite find a polite way to escape the situation.
Malcolm & Marie stars John David Washington and Zendaya as the titular characters. Malcolm is an up-and-coming filmmaker whose recent project premiered a few hours before the events of this movie and Marie is his visibly younger girlfriend. When the pair return from the premiere to their stunning short term rental in Malibu, Malcolm’s euphoria over positive audience reactions to his film gives way to an hour and 45 minute blowout that seems twice that length and lasts for nearly the entire movie.
‘Malcolm & Marie’ recreates the emotional experience of being at a friend’s house when their parents start fighting.
The trailer for Malcolm & Marie introduces the film with the phrase “this is not a love story.” That part is correct. The trailer then clarifies “this is the story of love.” In that case, yikes. While it’s true that love can be complicated and harsh, this movie captures little of that sentiment and instead recreates the emotional experience of being at a friend’s house when their parents start fighting. The arcs and dips of the argument contain spoilers, but the details aren’t as important as the relentless momentum of their mutual beef and the exhausting effect it has on the movie’s plot.
Much will be said about Washington and Zendaya’s performances in this movie, which are admirable not for their believability but for their ability to inhabit the bizarre verbal pocket universe created by Malcolm & Marie’s script. Malcolm and Marie fight like someone who loves writing is writing them, hissing out five paragraph essays on each other’s failings and mistakes with nary an interruption.
“You don’t have the gravitas, the fucking introspection to look at yourself and your flaws and your shortcomings and the fact that you might not be the next Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins,” Marie tells Malcolm, like that’s a thing a person would say on the spot. Earlier in the film Malcolm accuses Marie of giving up her career to be an “emotional fucking support dog,” one of many canned-sounding insults he coughs up as the night wears on.
Zendaya and Washington manage to make their characters’ unbelievable tirades sound good, or at least acceptably cruel in the context of the movie, but the whole of Malcolm & Marie never rises above a series of mean monologues the actors deliver in rapid succession. If this is the story of love, then anyone who sees it will want to remain single forever.
Malcolm & Marie does have the advantage of being a beautiful movie that uses its lauded black-and-white 35mm film to create drama in the shadows that surround the two main characters. Its direction is similarly gorgeous from start to finish, with a particularly good focus on tracking shots that follow Malcolm as he beats paths around and outside the house in search of Marie. Unfortunately Malcom & Marie is not beautiful enough to ignore its weird, flourish-y dialogue or the grating effect of watching a couple we’ve just met fight, make up, then fight again, then make up again, and so on for an entire feature length film.
It’s not a love story. It’s not the story of love. It’s a cage fight between two strangers with remarkable vocabularies who need to break up like, yesterday. Unless the idea of being trapped in that cage with them sounds appealing, Malcolm & Marie is an easy movie to miss.
Malcolm & Marie is streaming on Netflix.