There were a lot of factors that went into “Malcolm & Marie” being one of the most hotly anticipated films of early 2021. It was the first Hollywood feature film to be entirely written and produced during the pandemic. Filming took place in secret last summer with a small crew and even smaller cast of only Zendaya and John David Washington. Both actors are emerging as important players in the film industry as 24-year-old Zendaya gracefully bypasses her origins as a Disney Channel star and Washington proves himself to be more than a famous actor’s son through breakout roles in “BlacKkKlansman” and “Tenet.” All the elements were in place for this film to be an Academy favorite. However, most critics have expressed utter disdain for this movie. Why?
First, it must be acknowledged that the film is not a fun watch. Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya), a film director and a young actress, are deep in the throes of a chaotic and toxic relationship that is exacerbated by each of their individual struggles in their personal lives and careers. The story, played out in just one evening, is largely cyclical — an argument that evolves into a fight culminates in an exchange of extremely harsh words, a sudden retreat and then a few moments of intimacy, only to be interrupted again by an argument.
Reviewers have cited this as an issue with the film — that it’s too melodramatic, repetitive and overacted, but in most critical reviews, the real contempt comes as a response to the frustrations with the film industry, specifically of film critics, expressed by Malcolm.
In the middle of the film, after a particularly devastating exchange with Marie, Malcom reads the LA Times review for his film that premiered earlier that night, which is mostly positive, but acknowledges that the film is flawed. His reaction is — to put it lightly — vitriolic. His lengthy monologue drips with angst as he laments the struggles of being an artist — of having his work picked apart for its political implications rather than acknowledged for its technical quality or artistic value. Washington verges on overacting in his heartfelt tirade as Zendaya lies peacefully, listening and smirking at his over-the-top reaction.
The problem is that critics have judged Malcolm to be director Sam Levinson’s self-insert character, using him as a microphone to speak to Levinson’s own issues with the industry. What they don’t recognize, however, is that Marie is also a self-insert. We are not meant to take Malcolm’s extreme sentiment as the encompassing message of the film. Malcolm’s rant does have kernels of truth, but as the camera lingers on Marie’s relative stillness and occasional laugh, we can see that Levinson is self-aware of the problems with Malcolm’s extreme reaction. If anything, this scene represents Levinson’s internal dialogue as a filmmaker and how he must reconcile having an artistic vision with other people perceiving and judging his art’s meaning as reflecting real social issues.
Of course, film critics are going to feel most affected by the rhetoric posed against them, but their personal offense is preventing them from experiencing the best parts of this film. They are neglecting the brilliant camerawork that brings life to the black and white visuals, the use of setting and the way it presents unbridled intimacy as a companion to isolation — a direct result of the extraordinary circumstances in which the film was written and produced. However, it was the heartbreaking but truthful portrayal of lovers in turmoil that made it profoundly powerful. Anyone who has experienced toxicity in a relationship with someone they love will again feel the devastation, heartache and frustration as they watch Malcolm and Marie’s story unfold.
In the case of this film, Malcolm’s take proved to be true in that many reviewers couldn’t look past their own noses when viewing this film.