Malcolm is happy. He drinks, dances and sings with James Brown in the beautiful Malibu house that the production company provided them. He also lashes out over readings of his work from the jump, complaining about critiques that place racial and political context in the art in a haphazard and insincere way. He’s not entirely wrong about it all, but there’s an aggressiveness in his tone and lurking in his kitchen that mostly reveals him as insecure, and I think that’s how Levinson wants us to. read it too. He says really pretentious things like “I’m not elitist, I’m a filmmaker” as if being an artist makes him free from criticism while Marie is boiling and smoking. She’s been here before. But she pushes it 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 is upset: Malcolm did not thank her. He made a movie partially based on his life and couldn’t even bother to give it credit in public.
The first 25 minutes of “Malcolm & Marie” are a strong and autonomous short film. They are for the most part clearly written and Zendaya and Washington add what feels like history between the lines. I totally agreed. But I’m not convinced that we learned anything more in the next 80 minutes than in the first 25 minutes. Levinson allows the focus and pace of the film to drift away from him. It all starts to sound more and more like the voice of a writer and not two separate characters living real lives.
Levinson and his stars bring up interesting themes every now and then, like how we use others, 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’s fused into the heroine of his film, but it really shows just how much of an artist he is who takes more from the women in his life than he gives. The biggest problem with Levinson’s script is that it starts circling the same drains over and over again. Are these fights intentionally repetitive? Perhaps. The point may be, couples often have to stress the same points, but that doesn’t necessarily create an interesting drama. Worse yet, Levinson misses the beat. These are not fights, they are monologues. There is a difference. And the structure adds to the overly scripted feel of it all. It starts to sound as insecure as Malcolm’s critical complaints.