By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Feb 03, 2021 at 8:26 PM

‘Tis the season for romance, though you wouldn’t know it after watching “Malcolm & Marie,” the insufferable new Netflix relationship drama that, as far as Valentine’s Day gifts go, ranks somewhere between a vacuum and a swift kick to the nethers – not as painful as the latter, but definitely about as loud as the former. Date nights best keep their distance, but the intimate character interrogation fares no better as an option for those who prefer bitter over sweet, a toxic two-hander that wants to get at something real but instead plays exhaustingly fake. 

A handsome couple returns home well past midnight from a movie premiere. Hollywood hyphenate Malcolm (John David Washington, “BlacKkKlansman”) is ecstatic, celebrating his film’s seemingly successful debut, literally dancing around the sleek space at the prospect of getting his first positive reviews and a new reputation as “the next Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins.” His girlfriend Marie (Zendaya, HBO’s “Euphoria”) seems slightly less thrilled, a dead-eyed smile and some pointed comments poorly hiding some resentment. 

As it turns out, Malcolm forgot to thank Marie in his speech at the premiere – a bad but unassuming mistake that’s just the tip of a lurking iceberg ready to sink their entire relationship. The two proceed to lash out and verbally punch each other for 106 minutes, yelling about their personal histories, yelling about story credit, yelling about one another’s career ambitions, yelling about emotional manipulation, yelling about what they yelled about five yelled topics ago. And when the two tire of emotionally eviscerating each other, they save some bile for the entertainment industry, the state of film discourse and, in Malcolm’s case, the LA Times critic with the gall to write him a glowing review – almost all hollered as though these people learned how to communicate in English exclusively by watching the fight scene from “Marriage Story” at full volume in THX surround sound. 

Netflix’s fellow, far superior acerbic relationship drama, however, earned that moment, gradually building to that harshly cutting climax and letting it powerfully echo through its formed characters and the audience. Writer-director Sam Levinson shows no such sense of restraint, escalation, ebb and flow, or emotional weight. Instead, as with many of his projects (“Assassination Nation” on the big screen, “Euphoria” on the small screen), he exclusively speaks with a sledgehammer, jumping straight to shrill diatribes and straight to unrestrained cruelty – especially on Malcolm’s part – that never resembles human behavior.

There’s quickly nowhere for Levinson’s script to go – the relationship’s already become intolerably mean and established as irreparably toxic, the volume cranked from chamber drama to arena concert, by the one-third mark – except in tedious circles. Malcolm’s rant his work being pigeonholed by critics gets trotted out for a sequel – and like many sequels, it’s bigger, louder and not an improvement – while the script mends the two just to have to them rip the same fresh scabs right off again over and over again, never bothering to evolve the two over time. The individual monologues themselves feel repetitive, hammering the same insults and verbal rhythms into tedium like Levinson’s got a word count to hit. Even the quieter lectures are set at the same tenor. At approaching two hours, it’s a long time to be stuck hitting the emotional and literal caps lock.

John David Washington – his post “BlacKkKlansman” breakout already off to a tough start with “Tenet,” a disappointment doomed to be the Hollywood face of the worst year ever – suffers the most. Admittedly he’s given an impossible task: an irredeemable character who smugly looks down on everyone, gratingly complains about everything and, worst of all, wields Marie’s past struggles with suicide and drug addiction like a weapon, heckling a survivor with her worst traumas in response to minor slights. But Washington struggles to modulate his performance through the arguments, each rant staying on one insufferably shrill note – his second big whine about criticism and director identity literally never changes its decibel level. His Malcolm can’t even eat mac and cheese at a non-grating volume.  

Washington can be charismatic – after all, his “Tenet” protagonist literally named “Protagonist” is only interesting because of what charm he brings – and when the movie briefly allows peace, there are moments of something human and deeper than mere performative, actorly rage. As he’s reading his first review aloud, for instance, there’s an interesting beat where he stumbles over a violent detail that he’d just used as an insult on Marie, checking to see if he just reignited their fight. It’s one of the few moments where his character seems to recognize the impact of his words. Unfortunately, there’s too little of that, leaving a hollow character you have no idea why Marie – much less you – would want to spend time with. (Also: It’s besides the point, but his movie, misery porn loosely adapted from Marie’s struggle with drugs and mental health, sounds terrible too.)

Reteaming with her “Euphoria” creator, Zendaya fares far better. It helps that she has a richer, more thoughtful character, one not just relentlessly angry but also deeply wounded, the small slight in Malcolm’s speech cracking into a growing spiderweb of disappointment and hurt – and yet her love refuses to completely shatter. She also varies her performance, joining Malcolm in the loud fray but also delivering the all-too-rare funny, observational jabs – like quietly cutting down her partner’s roar about how he’s not a political filmmaker by matter-of-factly pointing out his next movie is about famed activist Angela Davis.

A late scene meant to show the power of lived-in authenticity unfortunately lands flat – ironically, acting like you’re acting is notoriously a tricky bit – and the laborious script wears on her ability to evolve within a scene and throughout the movie. But overall, it’s a performance so much more nuanced, recognizably human and complicated than her sparring partner that it makes Washington’s Malcolm seem even more punishingly vicious and monotonous. 

Put the two unbalanced characters and performances together with Levinson’s repellent screenplay, and despite all their talk of the past, the two never feel like a couple that existed before “Malcolm & Marie” began – and definitely don’t feel like a couple that’ll exist after it ends. And when the only thing at stake is an insincere and abusive relationship the audience would rather see decimated into salted ash than survive, despite all of its emotional fervor and bold-font drama, it’s a tension-free slog of a stream. 

While it’s hard on the ears, “Malcolm & Marie” is at least easy on the eyes, blocked smartly by Levinson and shot in spare but seductive black-and-white film by his regular DP Marcell Rev. It’s not just style for style’s sake either, the rich yet sharp visuals matching the raw, hot-and-cold state of the relationship. Combine his intimate and eye-catching work with the jazzy music from “Euphoria” composer Labrinth, and the movie has a swoony energy and romantic vibe that you constantly wish the central love story could match. 

It’s a shame because, on rare occasion, “Malcolm & Marie” is as compelling as it looks and feels. When Levinson allows its couple to calm down and behave like two people who actually might have, or at least had, warm feelings for one another (or even just like people still awake at an exhausting ungodly hour at night) instead of shouty acting showcases, the movie kindles some heat and finds some authentic and enjoyable moments. A brief bit, for instance, where Malcolm stressfully stalks around looking for his wallet, all while Marie patiently tries to guide him back to his lost items and his sanity, is more genuine than any of the movie’s attempts at raw, cutting dialogue. 

Levinson even gets at some interesting ideas, such as identity and authenticity, who lays claim to a story and the undefined borders of inspiration. And even Malcolm’s ravings about modern criticism, about trying to assign intent to identity and forgetting discussion of craft in the name of algorithmic trending topics, could be intriguing. (Few descriptors in a review mean less than “timely” or “the film we need right now,” as if anybody ever needs a movie.) But anything interesting or nuanced gets lost in the obnoxious and ear-piercingly blunt delivery, the audience falling numb to its irritatingly acerbic approach. Even acid becomes tired and tasteless after you’re forced to chug it for long enough.  

Before it hit the screen, “Malcolm & Marie” already drew acclaim and headlines as the drama was filmed all during the ongoing pandemic, with a limited crew and protocols in place to ensure safety. It’s an impressive achievement and statement about the resilience of art and creativity in hard times – something more engaging than most of this naval-gazing look at a cruel Hollywood relationship. “Nothing productive is going to be said tonight,” warns Marie early on before the gloves come off. Those watching have no idea how painfully right she’s about to be. 

"Malcolm & Marie": ** out of ****

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.