“Malcolm & Marie” is among the few recent films that was written and made during the COVID-19 pandemic and then released on a streaming service. HBO Max had “Locked Down,” which directly referenced the pandemic with the two leads divorcing then struggling to cohabitate while locked down. “Malcolm & Marie” follows a similar premise with only two actors finding themselves in one location, but it doesn’t mention the quarantine.

Malcolm (John David Washington), an up and coming director, and Marie (Zendaya), a failed actress, return to their home after the premiere of Malcolm’s first major movie. Through the stress and anxiety of the premiere, the two find themselves in a fight that will leave their relationship forever altered. Knowing the general premise of this film, as well as the talent attached to it, writer and director Sam Levinson crafts a tense, well-written drama, while also managing to both frustrate and waste the viewers time.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about “Malcolm & Marie.” I’m about as split down the middle as I have felt about a movie in a while. During the first 20 minutes, when the first real fight occurs between the couple, I was glued to the screen. The chemistry between Washington and Zendaya is palpable and authentic. There is so much history behind their actions to the point where they can be perceived as a real couple. The film comes out swinging with their first altercation, where so many feelings are revealed naturally throughout the argument. It’s really good stuff, and I was left curious about what else the film would have to offer going forward.

But then, it just kind of happened again. They got into another fight… and another… and then the credits rolled. At its simplest, it’s a movie about a couple in a really toxic and abusive relationship. Watching it can get exhausting. I never really felt the tangible growth of their characters or the feeling that they were gaining an understanding of each other. Most of the fun of the film is seeing how each character’s arguments can sway the viewer on who they side with in the end. The fact that the film doesn’t really have much to sink your teeth into past the first act is very underwhelming. 

Something that isn’t underwhelming, though, is the performances from Zendaya and John David Washington. With “BlacKKKlansman” and “Tenet,” Washington has slowly crept his way onto my list of people that I love seeing on screen. I can say the same with Zendaya, who has impressed me even more with each subsequent performance. Levinson gets career-best work for both of them here. He uses extremely long takes that allow the viewer to soak in the actors’ performances, almost as if you’re watching a play.

With that being said, that can also be a huge problem with the movie. It feels too play-like, in a bad way. The long takes are effective for getting the most out of a great performance, but the actor’s blocking is something that really takes you out of the experience. Malcolm and Marie aren’t doing anything interesting while they fight. They stand, sit, lay down and I noticed Malcolm especially likes to walk in circles. Malcolm’s note informs a little about his character, but it just isn’t interesting. There was one particular moment where Marie sits in silence while Malcolm rants for seven straight minutes. My takeaway should have been something more related to the film, but it was mostly, “I just watched John David Washington rant for seven minutes.” It’s impressive, but it’s just not interesting in the context of the film.

I can’t really tell you to watch “Malcolm & Marie.” I don’t really think it’s a great movie, but it also isn’t bad either. The highs are really great. Washington and Zendaya are excellent and the script is raw and, at times, it’s really effective. But, it runs out of steam incredibly quickly, and thus makes it seem as though it would’ve been better as a short film. 

Grade: C+

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