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At the time of this review, Malcolm & Marie is already dividing critics worldwide, which is far from being surprising, having in mind its expectedly provocative premise. Being a film critic isn't exactly an easy task, especially when it comes to deal with public opinion. In most cases, when one reaches a high level of success, that always comes with a heavy dose of offensive tweets and personal attacks, particularly when the author's opinion contradicts the audience's response. So, I was hoping that Sam Levinson would not contribute to the dozens of misconceptions surrounding film criticism and hundreds of conspiracy theories regarding journalists of the respective area…
Unfortunately, the extremely exaggerated, borderline offensive, over-the-top monologues - kind word for rants - delivered by Malcolm (John David Washington) are simply more wood thrown to the already devastating fire. What starts as a surprisingly rational, thought-provoking comment on how (some) critics tend to make movies about something these aren't attempting to be - mainly emphasizing a non-existent political or racial message - quickly evolves to scenes featuring a childish, immature, self-absorbed behavior from the male protagonist, who blindly attacks hypothetical reviews from, in his opinion, horrible critics. Even though this is somewhat of a niche subject for the general audience, it's still a negative contribution to a challenging problem film critics face every day.
I've read the following comment more than a couple of times already: "Sam Levinson is using a Black actor to transmit his white male director's frustrations on the industry's reviewers". In my opinion, whoever wrote something similar to this is falling into the exact same error Malcolm aggressively accuses critics of doing: reading too much into it, and once again, bringing race to a discussion where it doesn't belong. It doesn't really matter if the screenplay is written by a frustrated Levinson who decided to let out his thoughts about film criticism or by someone else entirely. Ultimately, the characters are one of the main pillars of any movie, and sadly, they're my main issue with the whole story.
Despite the prologue above that I couldn't help not writing, Malcolm & Marie focuses on the toxic relationship of the two unlikable protagonists. The adjectives used in the last sentence are hardly untrue. Malcolm and Marie spend almost the entire runtime in a tiresome, exhausting, headache-inducing cycle of incredibly exaggerated fights followed by a temporary reconciliation by making out for a couple of minutes before the next big argument begins. As soon as I finished the film, Marriage Story came to my mind, and I vividly remember tearing up when the main characters had that massive fight. Why did I feel so bothered and uncomfortable with Malcolm and Marie then? Because of their personalities.
Malcolm is nothing more than a cocky, egocentric, self-indulgent filmmaker who believes he's the king of the world now that he delivered a good movie. Pride and arrogance are separated by a thin line, but Malcolm definitely incorporates the arrogant persona who can't even show signs of gratitude when positive reviews come in - instead delivers another rant on how the respective author didn't understand his film. On the other hand, Marie (Zendaya) starts as an apparently nice, hardworking, lovable young woman who just got stuck with the wrong man, seemingly working as the equilibrium point in their relationship. I do feel sorry for a lot of things that happened to her. However, Marie quickly demonstrates that she's far from being a perfect girlfriend.
Despite being much more tolerable and less unlikable than Malcolm, Marie carries unforgivable mistakes from her past and shows an inability to accept that Malcolm might have drawn inspiration from someone else. With constant attempts at victimization and a certain amount of jealousy, Marie is the trigger for most of the arguments that come up out of nowhere each time the two reconcile. In the end, this is the reason why I felt so much more emotionally invested in the protagonists of Marriage Story: I deeply cared about these characters and their respective lives. Not only I understood what drove them apart, but I could actually relate to some of it. Malcolm might have made a beautiful movie partially based on his relationship with Marie, but it's still a toxic, damaging romance that no one should ever need to deal with.
Even though the before-mentioned problems are indeed heavy negatives, Malcolm & Marie still possesses a lot of qualities worthy of deep appreciation. Levinson might share the same views on film criticism as Malcolm, but his talent as a director is undeniable. His brilliant use of excruciatingly long takes plays a significant role in elevating the intensity and attention levels of every dialogue and monologue. Marcell Rév's cinematography - who previously worked with Levinson in Euphoria - is either based on tracking shots to follow each character across the never-ending halls and rooms of the house or static images to let the actors shine in their line deliveries. Rév waits for just the right moment to finally move the camera near the character after extensive, uncut minutes of impressive work from the movie's absolute standouts: the actors.
John David Washington's performance in Tenet wasn't universally loved, and even though I really enjoyed his display, I didn't know where his career would go from there. Well, his portrayal of Malcolm may be a bit too over-the-top for some people's taste, but despite my despise for the character, only a blind viewer would not value Washington's outstanding interpretation. In a surprisingly more physical display than I anticipated, Washington literally offers his entire body and voice to his character, not forgetting a single facial expression or body movement. As uncomfortable as his rants on film criticism are, I have to show appreciation for the actor's ability to actually make me feel like that.
Nevertheless, this is Zendaya's show. In fact, I won't be surprised by the inevitable nominations coming her way. For someone who never watched Euphoria or only has her performance as MJ in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home as an example, her portrayal of Marie will surely shock many viewers. From the incredible control of subtle emotions certain scenes ask for to the extremely captivating monologues - something both actors tackle superbly - Zendaya delivers her career's best performance in a feature film. An emotionally powerful display that I won't forget so soon. A final praise to Labrinth's score, which plays a meaningful part in the storytelling.
Malcolm & Marie is technically impressive - gorgeous cinematography and impactful score - boasting two phenomenal performances, but its complicated screenplay and characters push me to the negative side. From the overly exaggerated, almost offensive rants on film criticism and the area's professionals to the tiresome, over-the-top cycle of fight-reconciliation, Sam Levinson's undeniable talent as a director is overpowered by the two incredibly unlikable protagonists who are mutually damaging each other in their unquestionably toxic relationship. Despite the exceptionally captivating effort from John David Washington and especially Zendaya, who delivers a career-best interpretation, the feeling of discomfort and distress never goes away. Malcolm is a completely intolerable, arrogant filmmaker, and even though I genuinely felt sorry for Marie at one point, the latter eventually proves that she's far from being a better person. Since one of its central topics of discussion is a bit too niche for general audiences, it will probably find its commercial success through Netflix. Personally, it's my first major disappointment of 2021.