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“Malcolm & Marie” romanticizes a toxic relationship

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This review contains spoilers. 

Netflix’s newest film Malcolm & Marie starring Zendaya and John David Washington has been described by Zendaya herself as a “quarantine project” created in the spirit of lockdown due to the pandemic. The film explores the relationship between Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) upon arriving home and coming down from a high after Malcolm has a successful film premiere to crash thereafter. A revelation highlighted by Marie causes them to then fight… for the entirety of the movie.

Ultimately, Marie feels taken advantage of and undervalued by her filmmaker boyfriend who based the lead character in his new movie off of the hardship Marie has endured mostly on account of her substance abuse. Malcolm disagrees. So the two proceed to verbally spar. Then makeup. Then spar again. And that’s the rollercoaster the audience rides for about an hour and forty-five minutes. 

Notably, the film is visually beautiful as it’s filtered in black and white and in the setting of a gorgeous mid-century modern home in Malibu, gifted to Malcolm by his movie’s film producers. However, Malcolm and Marie are definitely in a toxic relationship and there’s hardly anything romantic about the two of them being together. Many of their disputes could be solved by more mature conversations and better self-awareness.

Although, maybe that’s the point. 

Marie represents a woman silenced in a relationship with another creative (she’s a model and former actress) whose story is taken and exploited by her partner. In one scene, Malcolm says to Marie “Of course I want you to have a life, Marie. You know why? Because I’m terrified that if you don’t, you’re going to hang everything on mine,” which showcases his lack of understanding towards the root of his partner’s frustrations. 

The insults Malcolm follows up to hammer the nail in to really hurt Marie’s feelings are much harsher. Same with the rebuttals Marie uses in retaliation. Their relationship is an intense tennis match of toxicity. Who can hurt who the most? Which insult is going to be the final blow that does in the argument or better yet the relationship?

[Image description: The characters Malcolm and Marie from Netflix's Malcolm & Marie.] Via
[Image description: The characters Malcolm and Marie from Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie.] Via
Malcolm & Marie tries (sometimes too hard) to portray a passionate and imperfect self-described “story of love” illustrated by two equally imperfect individuals. In reality, Malcolm and Marie are just immature and toxic together. That could also be attributed to the age differences as well as the power imbalances between the pair. The two met when Marie was only twenty-years-old after she overdosed while in a market with Malcolm there to “save” her and help Marie towards recovery afterward.

I have to say, Washington and Zendaya give great and convincing performances, sometimes making up for flaws in the script or directorial advice. Since the movie was made during lockdown, the two characters never leave their Malibu home, making the dialogue the focus of the story. Despite the entirety of the film being held in the same location, the shots utilize the setting well, showcasing different areas and angles of the interior and exterior of the house.

Sometimes, though, there’s too much dialogue on things that don’t matter much to the plot; for instance, Malcolm’s critiques surrounding white journalists and film critics. In a review for Bitch Media, Jordan McDonald writes of the young, female muse trope in Malcolm & Marie. She states, “The disparity between Malcolm’s career and Marie’s—one at the precipice of major success in film and the other leaving the same industry after a series of low-paying roles—speaks volumes about the power differential that plagues their relationship and enables its toxicity.”

If the film had kept the focus on the power imbalance based on gender, age, background, and mental health within the relationship between Malcolm and Marie, additionally showcasing some growth for either individual, it could have landed better. But the tangents Malcolm embarks on about film critics feels like it services Sam Levinson, the writer and director of the movie, more than it does the audience.

I also can’t help but compare this film to Euphoria Special Episode Part 1: Rue, for which Levinson is also a creator and writer. That episode has a very similar concept to Malcolm & Marie because it’s mostly dialogue between just two characters shot in one primary location. Rue, Euphoria’s protagonist, also copes with substance abuse and other mental illnesses similar to Marie. And, like the movie, in a little over an hour, the topics of addiction, depression, PTSD, and more are discussed at length. 

However, Euphoria utilizes its time in their special episode to say something greater about where its characters are heading in a way that was captivating almost solely off the dialogue, whereas Malcolm & Marie isn’t successful in recreating that same magic even though it intended to.

[Image description: The characters Malcolm and Marie from Netflix's Malcolm & Marie.] Via
[Image description: The characters Malcolm and Marie from Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie.] Via
The plot of the movie would have been helped along had Malcolm or Marie grown, or learned something relevant, or even decided to end the rollercoaster of a relationship they have. The trailer describes this film as “not a love story but a story of love” and I think the story of love could have been Marie choosing to love herself and the remnants of whatever friendship is at the core of her partnership with Malcolm and finally leave him behind. 

In staying together after almost two hours of relentless arguing, the plot and character arcs remain stagnant the whole way through and the film doesn’t even make any larger commentary about an unhealthy relationship besides ‘you definitely don’t want to be in a relationship like this one.’

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By Ebony Purks

Ebony Purks is a recent college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in professional writing. She is currently a freelance writer and Junior Life Editor at The Tempest. Ebony specializes in writing about pop culture, social justice, and health, especially examining the many intersections between those subjects. Though when she’s not writing, she’s rewatching her favorite comfort shows or excessively tweeting.