Even with two riveting performances at its core, this dialogue-centered film organized around an arguing couple over the course of one night will either speak to you or not. And that will depend entirely on how interesting you find the two characters, Malcolm & Marie, and their stories and concerns.
Their sparring over the course of the entire film can feel tiresome, and there are moments of real emotional cruelty and name-calling that could turn some viewers off. Yet the script also deftly reveals new layers of information bit by bit, explaining the roots of their rage as well as the contours of their deep mutual devotion.
Malcom and Marie are flawed, scarred, and selfish. They're also smart, driven, and in love. As closing lyrics suggest, they're toeing a thin line between love and hate; the tagline deadpans they're "madly in love." In a film stripped down to the core of just two people expressing emotional turmoil, Washington and Zendaya are mesmerizing.
The black-and-white cinematography is meant to convey elegance and sophistication, as is the modernist house, sexy black-tie attire, and the stylish cool of the movie's score.
It may also carry some symbolism. The Black Malcolm is deeply, at points comically, concerned with the mostly White film critics' reactions to his film. He knows he needs their approval, but he bristles at the guilt-driven, elitist, pedantic, "academic nonsense" they spout.
As Marie likes to point out, he's a walking contradiction: He worships "revolutionary" Spike Lee but comes from a privileged, intellectual family. "Not everything I do is political because I'm Black," he shouts, but Marie points out he's working on an Angela Davis biopic.
He explodes in a lengthy diatribe about artistic freedom, railing against the boxing-in of filmmakers and their perceived ability or legitimacy to tell stories according only to static identities -- White, Black, male, female, trans, gay, and so on.
"Cinema doesn't need to have a message. It needs to have a heart and electricity," he vows. Malcom & Marie has all three.
Read the full review at Common Sense Media.