Malcolm and Marie is entertainingly toxic

Photo: Dominic Miller / Netflix

Malcolm and Marie isn’t winning points for originality. A movie about a couple having a huge argument is probably the most common indie movie plot of all time because it’s cheap but inherently dramatic. I usually like these kinds of movies, but even I can admit the concept has been done so often that it’s become incredibly worn out. Scroll through the indie drama section of Netflix, and you’ll find seemingly hundreds of movies with the same plot. Despite the tired concept, I found myself really enjoying Malcolm and Marie. However, this isn’t a movie for everyone. It will engage and entertain some viewers and frustrate and annoy others.

Malcolm, portrayed by John David Washington, is an aspiring filmmaker who has just premiered what he hopes will be his breakthrough film. He and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) return from the premier with completely different attitudes. Marie is clearly upset about something, but Malcolm is too over the moon about his premiere to notice. When he finally does pay attention to Marie’s attitude he accuses her of souring a good night and the clash begins, setting the stage for 2 hours of one of the most toxic relationships put on film.

This relationship is a trainwreck you can’t look away from. The whole film almost feels like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation that you know you shouldn’t be hearing. This is not a film concerned with having likable characters. On the contrary, both Malcolm and Marie are purposefully written to have their worst aspects on full display. Malcolm is the stereotypical pretentious director who is obsessed with how people will view him and his movies. Marie is a former addict with massive insecurities that manifest in rather childish and passive-aggressive ways. Both are pretty narcissistic. It’s a bad combination for a relationship, a great combination for an entertaining movie. I find it interesting that people can watch this and come away with several differing opinions on it. Some people will relate more to Malcolm, and others will be more on Marie’s side of the issues. Some will find it entertaining and thought-provoking, but others will find it boring and pretentious. It’s a film that was bound to be polarizing.

Director and writer Sam Levinson has a real talent for writing dialogue scenes. I was engrossed in almost every moment, which is surprising for a plot where virtually nothing really happens. But a film about two volatile and at times offputting characters needs to have incredible actors at the helm. Otherwise, the characters would likely turn off audiences completely. John David Washington and Zendaya are the key reasons why the film works so well. They both bring a level of realism and pure vulnerability to their roles that offsets their characters' abrasive nature. In the hands of other actors, both characters might’ve come off as completely irritating. But for me just watching these two actors was enough to keep me glued to the screen.

After watching this film, I’m convinced Washington has enough talent to have a career as big as his father, even if they are fundamentally different actors. John David hasn’t demonstrated his father's pure charisma (at least he hasn’t yet), but you can tell that he has the same complete dedication to his roles. There’s a scene in the middle of the movie where Malcolm has a lengthy monologue about filmmaking. As much as I like this film's script, the monologue as written was an obnoxious detour. It felt like Levinson wrote an essay for a film studies class and decided to shoehorn it into the film. But those were thoughts I had after watching the movie. During it, Washington's performance of that monologue enraptured me all the way through. He was just on fire. That’s what I love about actors that are truly good at their craft. They can take a monologue that’s written like a film student whining about how their art and turn it into something that emotionally connects with you anyway.

That scene aside, the way Levinson explores filmmaking and film criticism through the character Malcolm isn’t all bad. The movie discusses many thoughts I’ve had about film myself such as why can’t a black director direct a film without being political or connected to his blackness? What defines selling out? How much of themselves does a filmmaker express through their work even if the film doesn't look like it has anything to do with their personal life. As someone who enjoys film criticism and film theory, these parts of the movie were thought-provoking. For those who aren’t as interested in that topic, it will probably feel like those parts drag on too long.

Malcolm and Marie is not going to work for many viewers. The characters are hard to like, it’s incredibly low budget, and its plot feels like it never really progresses. As soon as it looks like they’ve resolved their argument, they circle right back into it. Granted, couples do fight that way in real life, but it doesn’t mean that everyone will find it entertaining to watch two people argue over the same topic for hours. The draw of Malcolm and Marie is the performances of its stars. If you’re a fan of watching great acting on screen, this movie will at least entertain you, but if that isn’t enough to draw you into a piece, this is not the film for you.

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