A movie of dueling monologues and competing grievances, Sam Levinson’s “Malcolm & Marie” traps us inside the luxury rental and dysfunctional relationship of two enormously privileged, fiercely self-involved people.
The mood is so depressingly combative that the elation and grace of the opening scene feels like an unfulfilled promise. As the golden beats of James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City” flood the soundtrack, Malcolm (John David Washington), a rising-star filmmaker, dances exuberantly across his living-room. He and his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), have just returned from a successful premiere, and he’s high on acclaim and his own virtuosity.
His peacocking, however, irritates Marie, who heads for the bathroom in a sulk. A former drug addict whose grueling experiences inspired Malcolm’s film, Marie is about to unload a wealth of resentment on her unsuspecting partner. First, though, she’ll have to listen to him, his joy evaporated, complain about critics who define him by his Blackness — a justifiable loathing of categorization that doesn’t prevent him, later in the film, from singling out one female Los Angeles Times critic for special scorn.
That rant, an almost 10-minute scream-and-stomp tirade against, in part, the inadequacies of film criticism, isn’t the movie’s lowest point, only its most exhausting. (In Levinson’s script, the couple’s relationship woes are constantly competing with industry-related whining.) Malcolm may or may not be a megaphone for his director’s personal gripes, but Washington, a charismatically intense and supple performer, is ill-served by speeches that have the cadence and calculation of acting-school exercises.
Zendaya, for her part, fares slightly better with a character who is more willing to be vulnerable. When Malcolm cruelly tells Marie she’s not special, listing all the damaged women he has known who could have served as inspiration, she is touchingly wounded. Yet she also senses the insecurities behind his swaggering egotism, smartly pointing out — given his educated, upper-middle-class background — the artifice of his underdog posturing.
Fighting the metronomic beats of the movie’s equal-time speeches, Zendaya (who has the advantage of working with the crew and creator of her HBO show, “Euphoria”) allows us to glimpse the suffering that brought Marie to this point, and to this man. And while Marcell Rev’s high-contrast, black-and-white photography is often quite lovely — in one surreal shot, trees outside the home rear up like twisted, fairy-tale villains — only occasionally do his camera movements ease the claustrophobia of the stage-like setting.
A stylized stab at pandemic filmmaking, “Malcolm & Marie,” is at once mildly admirable and deeply unlikable. Beneath the film’s Old-Hollywood gleam and self-conscious sniping, serious questions are raised, only to lie fallow. What obligation, if any, does an artist have to their muse? And how do we separate an artist’s work from their ethnicity?
“I promise you, nothing productive is going to be said tonight,” Marie says near the beginning of the movie. Sadly, she’s telling the truth.
Malcolm & Marie
Rated R for foul language, crude foreplay and toxic egotism. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. Watch on Netflix.