Malcolm & Marie: Solitaire, by David Bax
Early in Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie–a movie that makes a case for self-indulgence not necessarily being a detriment to quality–Malcolm (John David Washington), a film director who’s just returned home with his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), after the triumphant premiere of his new movie, mocks the tendency of liberal, white film critics to impose politics on any movie made by or concerning someone from a minority group. Well, I felt attacked (which, masochistic though it may be, is a reaction I generally count in a film’s favor). Luckily, when he later expresses annoyance at critics who don’t know the difference between a Steadicam and a dolly or that lens choice and framing choice are not the same thing, I found myself feeling smugly vindicated. But Levinson has more in store than simply using Malcolm as a mouthpiece for his personal grievances. He intends, it turns out, to use both characters as mouthpieces for all sorts of stuff.
With the exception of a brief epilogue, Malcolm & Marie unfolds in more or less real time, starting with the couple’s return to their Malibu home at one o’clock in the morning following the premiere. He’s ecstatic; she’s clearly got something weighing on her. Once she unloads it, the rest of the movie takes the form of a long, see-sawing argument with brief respites that make clear why these two are together in the first place.
Washington is more than a decade his costar’s senior; Malcolm & Marie doesn’t specify Malcolm’s age but the implication is that the difference is comparable. This is especially evident in the way Malcolm talks down to Marie, especially in the early parts of the argument, when he’s mostly just irked at (what he sees as) her petulant parade-raining. Levinson and the two actors offer something of a counterweight to this imbalance, though, in Malcolm’s growing drunkenness over the course of the night; Marie has been sober for years and her levelheadedness often prevails in the battle’s component skirmishes.
Malcolm & Marie‘s simplicity does become a bit of a hinderance in its middle portion. The cycle of Malcolm’s unhinged diatribes, followed by Marie’s cold example-making, followed by a brief, light cessation of hostilities before starting up again grows tedious.
Still, Levinson (who bears the sole screenwriting credit, even if a lot of dialogue feels improvised, peppered so repletely as it is with “fuck”s) makes it all worthwhile by providing us with breaks or distractions. Malcolm and Marie occasionally stop fighting verbally and speak to one another through songs played on turntables or phones. And it’s a delight to watch Zendaya, step by step, make a box of macaroni and cheese while Malcolm’s off on a self-important tear.
After a different one of those fiery soliloquies, Marie accuses Malcolm of having an argument with himself. The inclusion of that line is a bit of irony because the entirety of Malcolm & Marie can be described as Levinson arguing with himself. Malcolm is the director’s anger and impulsiveness, ranting about cinematic form and technique in a way that feels self-consciously extratextual. But the reason, as we quickly find out, that the characters are even arguing in the first place is because of a transgression on Malcolm’s part. Basically, Levinson knows that the character representing his most passionate thoughts is not entirely right. Maybe Malcolm yells louder because he and Levinson are both feeling defensive, especially about the films they’ve both made, which they want to see as wholly their own work. Marie is Levinson’s rationality, a reminder that, while indignation feels empowering, it usually leads to unfair oversimplification. Malcolm & Marie is an auteurist statement that’s also an argument that crediting a movie’s worth to one author is recklessly reductive.