Sunday, April 18, 2021

Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Malcolm and Marie’ on Netflix, in Which a Troubled Couple Embarks on an Epic Escapade of Verbal Abuse

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Malcolm & Marie

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Malcolm & Marie

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Netflix’s Malcolm and Marie is proving to be rather polarizing. Sam Levinson — creator of Euphoria, son of Barry — writes and directs this single-location cast-of-two almost-real-time argument drama about a filmmaker on the night of his career-breaking premiere and his girlfriend, who also happens to kind of be the subject of his movie. They have quite the row, throwing roundhouses, going a few rounds, going round and round, round and round. It offers some capital-A Acting, heaps of self-awareness in its discussion of the art of film, and so much verbal pugilism, it probably should come with its own scorecard.

The new movie he wrote and directed just premiered, and he basked in the praise. He’s done it. He’s finally done it. He walks in the house, fires up some tunes, pours himself a scotch and dances in the kitchen. His s.o. Marie (Zendaya) seems a little less enthused. Maybe she’s just tired. It’s late. She goes to the bathroom, steps out the slider for a cigarette, puts a pot of water on to boil, steps out of her heels. She knows Malcolm is hungry so she’s making some mac and cheese while listening to his boastful repartee about how critics at the screening called the movie a masterpiece, except critics are idiots anyway, especially “that white woman at the L.A. Times.” She really gets eviscerated. Mauled. Drawn and quartered. He’s certain the movie will be interpreted as political just because he’s Black, when it’s just about a woman who’s an addict and trying to clean herself up. The critics will say it’s about everything but what he wanted it to be, which is just a story about this woman, you know?

Maybe Marie is tolerant, or bored, or just a little mellow. Did she crack an eighth of a smile when she saw Malcolm dancing? Maybe. Once he gets kissy and grabby and she’s unresponsive, we realize something’s brewing, and so does he.

He apologized many times over about it and she said she was OK with it but later decided she wasn’t OK with it because the movie is essentially about her, and without her experiences he wouldn’t be this artist on the verge of greatness. She tosses in the cheez powder and stirs and glops the mac in a bowl and leaves the room and Malcolm takes ravenous bites and yells with his mouth full of food that he thinks she’s unstable. Yes, that’s a very shitty thing to say.

But oh, there are many more shitty things to say, many of them even shittier than the first shitty things, and just when you don’t think they can get any shittier, they continue to push the boundaries of shittiness to a new shade of brown. One delivers a disembowelment, the other returns the favor. Next, they go for each other’s livers, then their kidneys, then a pause as Malcolm reads the review by the white woman at the L.A. Times and rants for several millennia even though she called his movie “a masterwork,” eventually going outside and bellowing to the heavens. Marie even chuckles a little. Then they get back to the interpersonal-communicative abattoir. Brains and hearts will be pulled out and seasoned and tenderized and shish-ka-bobed and grilled and devoured, so to speak, not literally, I’m just being hyperbolic, but this is what the movie does to a person, and we begin to wonder if there’s any going back for Malcolm and Marie after this, and if there will be anything left of them, and how much of it we really can take because it’s miserable, just miserable.

Photo: Netflix

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: This has all the vitriol of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and some of the nastier shades of Kramer vs.

It’s for the mac and cheese, because if he’s hungry, he should eat that, not this, you see.

Sex and Skin: A couple of suggestive neckings that become almost-schtups but are inevitably interrupted by verbal donnybrooks.

Our Take: These people are f—ed up. The cheez-powder mac and cheese is DISGUSTING. The only tolerable boxed mac and cheese dinner comes with the silver-foil goop pack of squeez-cheez sludge, and that’s irrefutable truth. As Washington blasts large forkfuls of the substance down his gullet, chewing and yelling, sometimes at the same time, it invoked in me a strange combination of hunger and revulsion. I was mighty unsettled.

And in that moment I determined that these people are horrible and I don’t want to spend any more time with them than I have to. Maybe if they were saying things that were in the least bit believable instead of exchanging venomous speeches in grandly overwritten overtures, they might resemble real people with real emotions instead of constructs propped up to pontificate about how life and the movies are profoundly and inextricably intertwined. It made me never want to watch a movie about movies again, a feeling that started gurgling in my guts when I watched Mank a couple months back.

That doesn’t bother me, per se. I don’t take it personally. I’ve never felt more, you know, talked at by a movie. It’s kind of funny. No, what bothers me is that the script’s many, many angry words coalesce into a bitter ball of unfocused disgust, and the virulent back-and-forth struck me as too unforgiving in tone and content for an exchange between life partners who have shared all of their vulnerabilities with each other. It’s jarring to see the most tender elements of people, fictional or otherwise, exploited in the cruelest ways. Maybe Levinson is making an assertion about the resiliency of love, or maybe he’s just creating a big, ugly, cynical rantpile and shoving it in the general direction of the things that irk him. Interpret as you may!

I will say the black-and-white cinematography is magnificent, just mesmerizingly beautiful. Its elegance and grace sits in great contrast to the film’s bilious unpleasantry.

Our Call: SKIP IT. As exercises in indulgent, pernicious malignity go, Malcolm and Marie isn’t very much fun.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.

Stream Malcolm and Marie on Netflix

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