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'Malcom & Marie' is a mess

I initially published this on my Letterboxd profile when the movie premiered. Felt like it was worth bringing over here for safe keeping. Follow me there for more regular film reviews.

Malcolm & Marie is the kind of movie that rats on itself. It ropes you in with a swanky neo-retro, upper class black & white aesthetic, a classic romance-on-the-rocks situation, and strong performances from two rising stars, but the film is as blindly self-obsessed as its male lead. Shortly after its title card, Malcolm frustratingly asks Marie to tell him what’s bothering her and she calmly responds, “Malcolm, I promise you nothing productive is going to be said tonight.” This movie is nothing if not true to its word.

What follows is the push-and-pull of several 20ish minute arguments between the couple interlaced with metatextual banter on filmmaking & film criticism. Some of the monologuing is worthy of plumbing for meaning, but at its core, the movie fails at delivering any coherent message on relationships, art, or criticism. But then the movie rats on itself again, as Malcolm shouts halfway through its runtime, “Cinema doesn’t need to have a message. It needs to have heart.” This line reflects the defensiveness Malcolm as much as that of the movie’s creators.

Again, the movie is true to its word, though: every moment is overwrought with emotion. It absolutely has heart. Its dialogue may sometimes feel more like the argument that happens in your head than the one that happens with an actual human being, but that’s the poetic melodrama of romance. Successful romances get away with saccharine and acrimonious dialogue. Blue Jay does it. Blue Valentine does it. Roman Holiday does it. But Malcom & Marie…doesn’t.

The movie fails because it’s a lazy portrayal of toxic masculinity that doesn’t make any real attempt to confront or deconstruct those behaviors. The first 20 minutes of the film are Malcolm berating Marie for being “psychotic” and “delusional” for wanting him to be thankful for the life experiences she was honest with him about that were the foundation of the film he created. She’s making him food while explaining this and can’t even get a murmur of gratitude from her partner. She was hurting and he made it about himself. And it doesn’t stop after the first segment. He belittles her, minimizes her concerns, accuses her of being jealous, and on and on. It’s the most basic portrayal of narcissism and emotional abuse and the film barely limps across the finish line on the topic.

So I guess the movie does succeed because nothing productive was said. And the movie knows it didn’t want to say anything productive. And that’s the whole problem.