Malcolm is happy. He’s drinking, dancing, and singing along to James Brown in the gorgeous Malibu house that the production company has provided for them. He’s also ranting about readings of his work from the jump, complaining about critics who place racial and political context into art in a haphazard, insincere way. He’s not entirely wrong about all of it, but there’s an aggression in his tone and prowling around his kitchen that reveals it as mostly insecurity, and I believe that’s the way Levinson wants us to read it too. He says truly pretentious things like “I’m not elitist, I’m a filmmaker” as if being an artist makes him exempt from criticism while Marie seethes and smokes. She’s been here before. But she prods him a bit too, pointing out that the ‘apolitical’ filmmaker is making a movie about Angela Davis and noting that she doesn’t know who William Wyler is either. And then Marie reveals why she’s upset: Malcolm didn’t thank her. He made a movie partially based on her life and couldn’t even be bothered to give her credit in public.
The first 25 minutes of “Malcolm & Marie” are a strong, standalone short film. They’re mostly sharply written and Zendaya and Washington add what feels like history between the lines. I was totally with it. But I’m not convinced we learn anything more in the following 80 minutes that we didn’t in the first 25. Oh, there are some great monologues—Zendaya nails each of hers in a way that almost holds the entire film together—but Levinson allows the focus and pacing of the film to get away from him. The whole thing starts to feel increasingly like the voice of a writer and not two separate characters living real lives.
Levinson and his stars do hit on interesting themes now and then, like how we use other people, especially when it comes to male artists using the women they’ve known. Malcolm seeks to hurt Marie by revealing all the other people he amalgamated into the heroine of his film, but it really shows how he’s an artist who takes more from the women in his life than he gives. The biggest problem with Levinson’s script is that he starts to circle the same drains over and over again. Are these fights intentionally repetitive? Perhaps. The point may be that couples often have to hammer home the same points, but that doesn’t necessarily make for interesting drama. Worst of all, Levinson misses the rhythm. These aren’t fights, they’re monologues. There’s a difference. And the structure adds to the overly scripted feel of it all. It starts to all sound as insecurely crafted as Malcolm’s critical complaints.