Joe’s Take

I enjoy dialogue-heavy movies created by writers and directors who know how to create an action scene with words. If you take the time to read this blog weekly, you already know my favorite filmmaker to take on that kind of project is writer/director Aaron Sorkin. His scripts flourish best when he collaborates with an acclaimed director who gives his scenes motion when sequences involve just two people talking. David Fincher accomplishes this best in one of my favorite movies, “The Social Network.” Quick cuts, character movement, expert framing and tracking shots keep the audience’s eyes engaged. In Netflix’s “Malcolm & Marie,” writer/director Sam Levinson pairs fast-paced dialogue with masterful camerawork and gorgeous cinematography.

Levinson creates a 1-hour, 45-minute film about two characters in one location. The title characters, Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) are the only people in the film that covers one night. The couple returns to their secluded home after writer/director Malcolm’s successful movie premiere and afterparty. While, Malcolm is excited about his big night, Marie is upset he didn’t thank her in his speech. The oversight brings to light massive problems in their relationship and a verbal battle ensues.

While most of the film is Malcolm and Marie arguing, the set allows the characters to roam freely around the house. The house has glass outer walls that allow the camera to capture the characters from many angles and create tracking shots. In the opening scene, Malcolm walks circles around a large table and talks about the movie premiere and all the critics. As he walks around the table and talks, the camera follows him with a tracking shot. The character and camera movement keep the scene lively. Levinson also frames scenes beautifully, capturing one character in the foreground and the other in the background. The black and white film proves gorgeous with its phenomenal cinematography, especially when the characters roam outside the house. The glass outer walls also allow the cameras to work from the inside out, providing beautiful shots that can capture so much more, like the symbolism of a room and the characters outside of the house.

Levinson adds to his verbal action with the characters’ changes in tone. The characters range from screaming to almost whispering. They even do a little bit of singing along with music on their phones. The variety keeps the film from becoming stagnant.

All that is great, but without the right actors “Malcolm & Marie” doesn’t get off the ground. If you needed more proof Washington and Zendaya are all-around stars, this film cements it. Despite the actors’ age difference (Washington is 36, while Zendaya is 24), their chemistry proves realistic. Both make very long stretches of dialogue seem natural.

A few months ago, Washington flourished in the blockbuster “Tenet.” Now audiences know he could thrive in anything after his work in the intimate Netflix film. While I mostly remember him yelling, Washington covers a range of emotions, including sadness, anger and exuberance. It reminded me of his father’s work in 2001’s “Training Day,” which won Denzel his second Oscar. In “Training Day,” Denzel’s character, Alonzo, is evil, but his charm allows him to manipulate those around him. His manipulation even reaches the audience as it’s difficult not to like the character. In the same way, John David Washington as Malcolm spews downright cruel statements at Marie that prove he’s ugly on the inside. However, he’ll smile, profess his love and start crying in order to try to manipulate her. He’ll also make the audience laugh out of nowhere, which again adds to his charm. Despite all that, there is a good person in him. John David Washington makes the audience feel all of that. He also has an intimidating presence. Not that he’s a big guy, but it’s important to the film to know he can physically overpower the very thin Zendaya at any moment.

Although I just praised John David Washington for his versatility, Zendaya needed to have more versatility for her role. While Malcolm is more bombastic, Marie is more subtle. Zendaya’s facial expressions and nonverbal communication are just as important as her dialogue. Often she’s on the verge of crying while trying to remain strong. She shows that emotion without opening her mouth. When she attempts to move past the argument, the audience sees her charm, smile and personality that would make the duo so compatible. She also performs two powerful sequences at the end. One absolutely stunned me as it was such a scene-stopping sequence. Zendaya won an Emmy for Levinson’s creation, HBO’s “Euphoria.” Her work in “Malcolm & Marie” is also award worthy.

Despite the film’s greatness, it could have used a little reeling in. The film is about 15 minutes too long. It attempts to carry its intensity for an hour and 45 minutes. That’s a long time for an argument that doesn’t take too many breaks. The film is meant to be a tough watch, but emotionally “Malcolm & Marie” is a workout. There was one moment where Malcolm was in the midst of a monologue and I zoned out. When I zoned back in, he was still monologuing and I didn’t miss a thing. I thought it was incredibly impressive how well the two actors were able to remember long stretches of dialogue, but it was just a little more than was needed.

“Malcolm & Marie” thrives off Levinson’s vision, while John David Washington and Zendaya further elevate that vision. It needed to trim some time, but it still finds itself among the best films of the extended 2020 movie season.

4.5 out of 5 stars

John David Washington and Zendaya star in “Malcolm & Marie.” (Dominic Miller / Netflix via AP)

Rebecca’s Take

In last year’s Academy Awards nominee “Marriage Story,” divorcing couple Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver face off in a devastating argument that lays bare the emotions in their crumbling relationship. Take that war of words, stretch it to an hour and 45 minutes and you’ve got “Malcolm & Marie,” writer-director Sam Levinson’s gorgeous and grueling examination of a couple whose relationship is tested over the course of a single evening. With its bruising back-and-forth monologues, the intense drama is as uncomfortable as it is mesmerizing, putting audiences through the wringer.

Filmed in stark black and white during the pandemic, “Malcolm & Marie” makes the most of its confined setting, innovative filmmaking and limited cast, which spotlights two of Hollywood’s rising stars. But as the two go round after round, one shines brighter than the other. An inadequate script makes “Malcolm & Marie” less evenhanded than its title indicates.

The relationship drama follows up-and-coming writer-director Malcolm Elliott (John David Washington) and his girlfriend, former actress-turned-muse Marie Jones (Zendaya), after the premiere of his new film. When the two return to the Malibu mansion they’re staying in, Malcolm basks in the glow of the film’s praise as he sits on the cusp of making it big. But Marie appears disturbed. She’s upset that Malcolm forgot to thank her in his introduction to the movie – which may have been based on her own life.

The couple’s tensions bubble over into a full-blown fight, and the wounds of their five-year relationship are ripped open. As hurtful revelations and hidden insecurities come to light, Malcolm and Marie must face whether their relationship will survive the night.

A product of the coronavirus pandemic, the sparse yet cinematic “Malcolm & Marie” brings together Levinson’s ambitious vision in a contained space. Shot during the outbreak’s early days, the film features only two actors and a minimal crew in one location, with its action happening in real time. The close confines mimic the isolation many of us found ourselves in during lockdown.

The mansion’s glass windows allowed the crew to film outside the house, giving viewers the impression of peeking inside the couple’s turbulent life. The opening scene shows the mansion’s layout, the first of many tracking shots. The camera follows Washington and Zendaya as they move effortlessly in between rooms. The farthest they can venture is outside, among the trees and the restless wind. Levinson uses several long takes to showcase the lengthy monologues between Malcolm and Marie, adding an authentic feel to the emotional outpouring. Marcell Rev’s rich black-and-white cinematography underscores the gray areas the couple finds themselves living in as they are forced to judge their relationship.

Heavy on verbal sparring, “Malcolm & Marie” hurls words as weapons, creating a palpable push-and-pull dynamic between its two leads. Levinson’s dueling dialogue crackles as the couple push each other’s buttons, dredging up past traumas, pain and criticism. As the fight escalates, each insult cuts deeper than the one before. Zendaya and Washington capably deliver the rapid-fire dialogue as Marie and Malcolm take off the gloves, no holds barred. But the fighting becomes repetitive after a while. With its limited location, the drama runs about 15 minutes too long. An hour-and-a-half would have better served its contained premise.

“Malcolm and Marie” showcases two superstars in the making. Zendaya and Washington are both coming off high points in their careers. After her Emmy win for “Euphoria,” Zendaya once again teams up with series creator Levinson. Washington, the son of superstar Denzel Washington, had his biggest role to date in Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.” The two sizzle onscreen, tapping into the passion needed to make their longstanding argument believable. But the film’s uneven screenplay sharply demonstrates the difference in the actors’ arsenals. While “Marriage Story” made both of its leads sympathetic, “Malcolm & Marie” only accomplishes this with one of its leads.

Acknowledging her flaws, Marie is the more well-rounded character. In a subtle performance that powerfully builds, Zendaya peels back Marie’s quiet strength to reveal the force she truly is. At only 24 years old, Zendaya taps into a decade of acting experience to bring Marie’s complexities to life.

Through her facial expressions, Zendaya channels Marie’s inner pain as she withstands Malcolm’s taunting. A former drug addict, Marie is painfully aware of her past mistakes, including cheating on Malcolm. But after all she’s been through, she’s come out on the other side for the better. Her anguish at being left out of Malcolm’s speech when he pilfered her life story is utterly heartbreaking. In the show-stopping finale, Zendaya delivers a moving and affirming monologue, capping off an Oscar-worthy performance.

While the script develops Marie as a character, the pretentious Malcolm is little more than one-dimensional. In fact, he’s toxic. The screenplay doubles down on the filmmaker’s arrogance and conceit. As the flashy and obnoxious Malcolm, Washington has the showier role here. Washington is 12 years older than Zendaya, but he has less industry experience, with his only other major film role in 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman.” The actor’s inexperience shows as he resorts to mostly yelling his lines.

As Malcolm, the actor loudly rattles off the positive reaction he reaction to his film, proclaims he didn’t steal inspiration from Marie’s life, and repeatedly rips a white female critic from the Los Angeles Times. “Malcolm & Marie” breaks a cardinal rule of filmmaking by telling us that Malcolm has a good side – he stood by Marie during her drug addiction. But the film never shows us that side. In one of the film’s most upsetting scenes, Malcolm cruelly demeans Marie while she lies in a bathtub. His despicable behavior marks a point of no return that viewers will find it hard to get past.

Exhilarating but exhausting, “Malcolm & Marie” turns a lovers’ spat into a heated battle. The inventive drama thrives within its pandemic-induced confines, letting audiences into the intimate workings of a relationship in turmoil. But the script lets down one half of its titular duo. The screenplay favors Zendaya she reaches a new pinnacle in her career, while the talented Washington continues to gain experience within a limited role. In putting its lead relationship under the microscope, “Malcolm & Marie” explores the beauty and pain of love.

3.5 out of 5 stars