It's always wise for a critic to fess up to their peculiar irritants, so here goes: I can't abide "theater of recriminations." That's hardly a genre as easily definable as a superhero movie or a romantic comedy, but I know it when I see it. It's one of those stories predicated entirely on the drama of people—usually in some kind of established relationship, whether romantic or familial—letting loose with inflamed speeches about what they can't stand about one another, how one has done the other wrong, and so forth. At their best—Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is perhaps the archetypal version—I can find them tolerable if the performances are strong enough. At their worst ... waiter, check please.
There's really no other way to describe Malcolm & Marie except as theater of recriminations. It's a movie that, despite its provenance as a story designed specifically as a movie during the pandemic, feels like an adaptation of a two-hander stage play with two marvelously showy roles. And despite the presence of two talented actors giving their (alternately) can-you-hear-me-in-the-balcony and furiously quiet best, it can never get past the structure that amounts to "hey, fuck you," followed closely by, "oh yeah, well fuck you."
Set over the course of a single long night, it opens with a couple returning home after a big event. Malcolm Elliot (John David Washington) is a filmmaker who has just premiered his potential breakthrough, a drama about a recovering addict; Marie (Zendaya) is his girlfriend of five years, whose experience at least in part inspired the story. While Malcolm tries to process this potentially career-defining evening, it soon becomes clear that Marie has something on her mind: Malcolm forgot to include her in his "thank you's" during his introduction to the film. And thereby is opened a whole-ass can of worms.
As it happens there are a whole lot of issues these two have to work out, or at least that one of them believes the other has to work out. Is Malcolm unsure how to navigate the filmmaking world as a person of color, wondering if the expectations surrounding his work will always be that it's "political"? Is Marie insecure about having given up on her one-time aspirations of being an actor? Writer/director Sam Levinson (creator of Zendaya's Emmy-winning Euphoria) isn't about to leave any doubt about what exactly is going through these characters' heads, as they trade monologues, pause occasionally to make up and make out, then return to the arguments, all while navigating the fraught territory of a white filmmaker trying to tease out the challenges of being a Black filmmaker.
And it's not all terrible, especially with these actors doing great work. Zendaya captures Marie's mix of determination and fragility, while Washington rips into Malcolm's ego-driven tirades. But even when the arguments are pitched softly rather than aggressively, there's no restraint to anything. Theater of recriminations, at its most frustrating, isn't a problem because people never argue like this; it's a problem because it suggests that these people have never argued previously, and that every last ounce of accumulated crap between them is going to be blasted through a firehose for 90 minutes.
The same of it is, Malcolm & Marie feels more like a well-composed movie than stories of this kind generally do, and not just because it's shot in a glossy black-and-white. Levinson captures some wonderful images, from a montage of the couple's pillow talk to its final shot. But eventually and inevitably, it returns to being a grievance delivery system, and it grows almost immediately wearying.
It would be disingenuous for a film critic not to mention that one of Malcom's extended screeds in Malcolm & Marie is directed at an unnamed Los Angeles Times film critic—one who is actually raving over Malcolm's movie—for her lack of insight. There's evidence that a specific real-life individual might be the target for this animus, which makes it hard for the movie not to feel petty, yet in a sense, that would just be an appropriate emotional register for theater of recrimination. Rather than indicating an attempt to fix something that's broken, it's mostly about a shouting match with the goal of determining who gets the claim the mantle of victim.