In recent years, film fans have been treated to a handful of exceptional scenes featuring feuding couples. There’s Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s bitter dinner table tiff in La La Land, the climactic wall-punching spat between Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannsen in Marriage Story, and best of all the outstanding asparagus-themed quarrel played out by Daniel Day Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread.
Malcolm and Marie, the new Netflix film from Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, goes one step further by basing not just a key scene but its entire narrative on one never-ending row between the eponymous couple, played by Tenet star John David Washington and Emmy-award winner Zendaya. The film – which was produced entirely in lockdown – is gorgeously shot in black and white, and it’s romantic intentions are clear, but it’s the performances from those aforementioned leads that ultimately stand out as the strongest points in its favour.
We’re given little time to get to know the characters – an up-and-coming film director and his recovering drug addict girlfriend – before the film launches headfirst into the first of multiple screaming matches. Reportedly based in part on Levinson’s own experiences, the initial cause of the dispute stems from Marie’s displeasure at Malcolm for neglecting to thank her following the premiere of his latest film. Over the course of the film’s nearly two-hour runtime, the resulting spat brings to light a number of festering resentments, while also exploring issues of authenticity in the film industry and Malcolm’s discontentment with the manner in which his work is treated by critics – specifically their constant focus on the political meaning of his work.
This all makes for a sometimes enjoyable but ultimately rather frustrating film that often feels like it’s endlessly repeating itself to no great effect. The argument, with all its melodramatic flair, can occasionally be compelling but more often than not feels somewhat tedious, cycling through various cliches and offering little reason to care a huge deal about either of the characters. Levinson’s script, meanwhile, is almost laughably heavy-handed, with Malcolm’s lengthy tirade after reading an LA Times review of his film coming across as particularly smug and self-satisfied. It’s also overlong: the argument just isn’t interesting enough to sustain an almost two-hour movie, and so it can feel a bit like a short dragged out to feature length.
As a piece of engaging drama, then, Malcolm and Marie undoubtedly wobbles – but what the film does work as is a showcase for its stars, particularly Zendaya (who has previously worked with Levinson on Euphoria). Despite the awkwardness of much of the dialogue, there is a genuine spark between the two charismatic performers, both during the lengthy feud itself and in the occasional, more tender interludes.
Both stars are given plenty of opportunities to deliver passionate, eviscerating monologues and they do so with gusto and a degree of entertaining showmanship, injecting an element of theatricality to proceedings. This might seem overdone to some, but it nicely offsets the pomposity of the script itself. A highlight involves a scene in which Marie appears to approach her beau with a knife – in what turns out to be the character’s own attempt to prove her acting skills. It’s ham-fisted, no doubt, but it’s fun and Zendaya is clearly enjoying herself with all her overdramatic sniffles.
In other sections, the acting pair also manage to provide some nuance to a script that’s generally lacking it, preventing the film from being quite as one-note as it might have been with less talented stars in the lead roles. This most comes to the fore in the rare moments of the movie where the dialogue takes a back seat, Zendaya’s quiet rage often proving more effective at communicating the resentment between the couple than the frequent louder sections. (These quieter interludes also function as a nice chance for the audience to relax from the otherwise exhausting onslaught of talking.)
Malcolm and Marie, then, is not a perfect film by any means, but it’s not a disaster either. It would benefit from being shorter, and it’s certainly lacking in subtlety, but at its best, Levinson’s film is an enjoyable showcase for two talented actors who completely buy into the script.
Malcolm and Marie is streaming on Netflix from Friday 5th February 2021. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best TV series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide