The Hero’s Journey in “Malcolm and Marie”

A director on the brink of success and his girlfriend spiral through their flaws and past sins in writer/director Sam Levinson’s two-hander “Malcolm & Marie”. John David Washington and Zendaya star in the drama. Malcolm (Washington) is largely a self-centered asshole, the kind of guy who makes everything about him, even the life story of Marie (Zendaya), and then refuses to give her credit for it. He can’t stand it when someone he purports to love isn’t 100% supportive of his work, is it surprising that reviews by strangers drive him somewhat insane?

Malcolm is happy. He’s drinking, dancing, and singing along to James Brown in the gorgeous Malibu house that the production company has provided for them. He’s also ranting about readings of his work from the jump, complaining about critics who place racial and political context into art in a haphazard, insincere way. He’s not entirely wrong about all of it, but there’s an aggression in his tone and prowling around his kitchen that reveals it as mostly insecurity, and I believe that’s the way Levinson wants us to read it too. He says truly pretentious things like “I’m not elitist, I’m a filmmaker” as if being an artist makes him exempt from criticism while Marie seethes and smokes. She’s been here before. But she prods him a bit too, pointing out that the ‘apolitical’ filmmaker is making a movie about Angela Davis and noting that she doesn’t know who William Wyler is either. And then Marie reveals why she’s upset: Malcolm didn’t thank her. He made a movie partially based on her life and couldn’t even be bothered to give her credit in public.

There are some great monologues—Zendaya nails each of hers in a way that almost holds the entire film together—but Levinson allows the focus and pacing of the film to get away from him. The whole thing starts to feel increasingly like the voice of a writer and not two separate characters living real lives.

Levinson and his stars do hit on interesting themes now and then, like how we use other people, especially when it comes to male artists using the women they’ve known. Malcolm seeks to hurt Marie by revealing all the other people he amalgamated into the heroine of his film, but it really shows how he’s an artist who takes more from the women in his life than he gives. The biggest problem with Levinson’s script is that he starts to circle the same drains over and over again. Are these fights intentionally repetitive? Perhaps. The point may be that couples often have to hammer home the same points, but that doesn’t necessarily make for interesting drama. Worst of all, Levinson misses the rhythm. These aren’t fights, they’re monologues. There’s a difference. And the structure adds to the overly scripted feel of it all. It starts to all sound as insecurely crafted as Malcolm’s critical complaints.

So why watch this fractured couple? Washington is at his best and most irritating when he’s allowing Malcolm to be truly awful, a man who takes out his own insecurities on everyone around him. However, this is Zendaya’s movie, and she proves again that she can add depth to everything she does. Her quietest moments are her strongest, conveying the feelings of someone trying to decipher if the hurt she now feels means the end of a relationship or if this is just another bad fight.

Two-handers are inherently difficult, and you could argue that “Malcolm & Marie” would have worked better on a stage. I don’t think that’s the issue. They just didn’t quite crack how to make it feel genuine.