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‘Malcolm & Marie’ is an exhilarating lovers’ spat with electric chemistry

Malcolm & Marie is a stylish, jazzy, gorgeously shot late-night bitch fest. Now that may not sound like a good time at the movies for some, but I found the experience exhilarating.

The camera seems to be always on the prowl as it follows these two lovers warily approaching each other and then retreating time and time again. Like boxers in a ring, Malcolm and Marie are constantly evaluating the other’s weaknesses while covering up their own. Their verbal strikes are sometimes jabs, sometimes body blows, and sometimes knockout punches. But they keep getting back up for more.

There’s never any physical abuse here. And the verbal sparring never devolves into name-calling or vulgar insults. But that’s not to say the words don’t sting and sting grievously. They know how to hurt each other like only lovers know how to hurt. They’re both aggrieved, and the question for both of them is whether this is honest but painful truth-telling or mean-spirited score-settling. Lovers’ spats are often both and this is no exception.

It is only a two-person cast and it’s set in a single, albeit spectacular, house. The black-and-white cinematography takes full advantage of the film’s distinctive setting, an award-winning modernist glass house, and its beautiful leads. John David Washington as the 30-something Malcolm and Zendaya as the twenty-something Marie are, of course, very good-looking and charismatic actors. And the camera, as they say, loves them both.

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It makes sense they’re both attractive; they are, after all, playing Hollywood party people – he’s a rising film director and she’s his gorgeous muse. But they’re far more than pretty faces. Both actors seem fully invested in the emotional complexity of their characters and their chemistry is electric. It’s primarily that electricity that keeps their 1-hour and 46-minute talkathon compelling throughout.

And what is it they talk about? The movie takes place immediately after the Hollywood premiere of Malcolm’s new film. The couple has just returned home and Malcolm is ecstatic. He’s never felt this triumphant. All the “important” critics seemed to have loved his movie and he’s feeling it. He could not be more full of himself.

Marie on the other hand is subdued. She seems a little put off by his exuberance, his overweening pride. It takes Malcolm a little while but he eventually comes back down to earth and notices Marie’s reluctance to join in on the celebration. It turns out Marie’s peeved he didn’t thank her during his post-screening speech. It’s this seemingly minor faux-pas that launches a thousand snipes between them. As is often the case in marital fights, small gripes can mask much larger relationship issues and Malcolm and Marie delve into all those larger issues and then some over the course of the night.

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Both characters are masters of the well-delivered rant. They lob perfectly composed broadsides that inevitably end with a rhetorical flourish or two. Washington and Zendaya seem to relish this juicy back and forth, as each gets to deliver pointed monologues one after the other.

Sometimes those rants are entirely off-topic. For instance, when the first review of the film comes out in the Los Angeles Times in the midst of their fight, Malcolm erupts in anger at the way the critic raves about his film. Despite her calling it a masterwork, the critic is lambasted for using Malcolm’s race – he’s Black – and his gender as a way to “understand” his film.

He goes on a lengthy riff about the irrelevance of “the male gaze” — what if the male director is gay? — and why he should be compared to classic Hollywood directors like William Wyler as much as he should be connected to Black directors like Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins. (Part of the inside joke here is that a white man — director and screenwriter Sam Levinson — wrote the very words Washington delivers as Malcolm.) It’s an entirely unnecessary detour, but Washington delivers it with such passion and conviction, it doesn’t matter. (Malcolm even critiques the critic’s use of the word” jazzy.” I’m sure I’m not the only critic who intentionally included that word in the opening line of his review.)

Lots of critics have been harsh on Malcolm & Marie. It’s been blasted as self-indulgent. The characters have been dismissed as either mouthpieces for Levinson’s own film industry gripes or mere devices to deliver Levinson’s showoff-y writing skills. I’ll grant you some of this rings true. For instance, about halfway through the film, one realizes that this is about as much as any one couple could survive, and yet it continues and continues. But the actors’ commitment to the material shines through so strongly, and the camerawork is so alluring, that I was happy to see it through to the end.

Malcolm & Marie has been compared, albeit unfavorably, to John Cassavetes’ work, to last year’s Marriage Story, and to the brilliantly talky My Dinner with Andre. But the clearest connection is to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the Mike Nichols’ film version of Edward Albee’s play. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were both dazzling as the long-married couple whose endless bickering reaches a revelatory crescendo in the final act. Malcolm & Marie is a far more rambling affair than Albee’s play, but the riveting performances and the rich, heightened language are certainly reminiscent of the 1960’s black-and-white classic.

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