‘Malcolm & Marie’: Zendaya and John David Washington Get Into a Glossy Fight

Here we have winter’s most gorgeous argument. “Malcolm & Marie” has the look and texture of being stuck in a sumptuous locale with two attractive people bickering, and you’re just a bystander. It’s the first arthouse relationship brawl of the Covid Cinema era, directed by the usually impressive Sam Levinson and picked up by Netflix. Levinson has recently found deserved acclaim with his dark Gen Z opus for HBO, “Euphoria,” and here he brings over key players from his team, including its star, Zendaya. The story is the kind tailored for pandemic shooting conditions. It even feels like a lock down. Never do we leave the house, instead observing for one gorgeously-lit hour and forty-six minutes a yawning battle of egos.

Because the quarreling lovers are Zendaya and John David Washington, the elliptical dialogue receives necessary currents of raw talent. Washington is Malcolm, a young director basking in the applause of a glorious premiere of his new film, while Zendaya plays Marie, his once- aspiring actor girlfriend. They arrive at the famous Caterpillar House in Carmel, California, where the production company has set them up. But amid the songs being played on the record player and Malcolm making victory laps, there’s an issue waiting to explode: He forgot to thank Marie in his speech. It is obvious to her that his film, about a woman struggling with drug abuse and the mental health system, was culled from her own experiences. At first Malcolm seems puzzled by her calling him out. What ensues is a drawn out fight/debate/therapy session about who these characters are, from Malcolm as a privileged wannabe auteur convinced he’s a misunderstood artist, to Marie’s self-loathing recovering addict. 

The great challenge in making a self-contained film about two characters is in generating a narrative engaging enough in both technique and dialogue. Levinson is a great visual stylist and with cinematographer Marcell Rév, his regular on “Euphoria,” he makes “Malcolm & Marie” a sensuous piece with the gloss of a fashion magazine. The opening titles are taken out of the ‘70s, but the black-and-white look of the film recalls David Fincher’s “Vogue” video for Madonna. Notice how Zendaya is framed lighting her cigarette, leaning against a door, with absolute perfection. It’s a worthy approach because we are spending the night with two individuals who have finally entered the celebrity circles most people moving to L.A. yearn for. Levinson, like Sofia Coppola, is the successful offspring of a renowned director, Barry Levinson, and so he knows this world inside out. But unlike Coppola, he’s not really probing any deeper than the kind of shallow, borderline pretentious stereotypes we associate with the concerns of Ivy League film students. Moments of genuine introspection are lost under rambling monologues. 

It’s a strange, dual experience because Zendaya and Washington are excellent actors who bring passion and even blunt cruelty to their deliveries of Levinson’s calculated dialogue. There was some absurd and immature controversy when the trailer first dropped because of the actors’ age gap. Zendaya is 24 and Washington 36. Yet this adds to some essential dynamics. Malcolm is just old enough where he can try and corner Marie with the idea that he knows better. He’s not that much more mature of course, munching on mac and cheese she cooks for him, then shouting why she would ever think his movie is about her. That’s the real detonator that erupts in a fight that can sound like a collage of mini-essays. Many of them feel like Levinson going on a stream of consciousness release. The night’s confrontation goes from Malcolm insisting Marie was not the sole inspiration for his movie to comparisons of privilege. She reminds him that while white critics may champion his work as a win for Black representation, it’s not as if he comes from humble roots (“your sister works for a Washington think tank”). Malcolm in turn tries to shame her into submission, reminding her that he was by her side while recovering from drugs. Besides, he’s had worldly experience anyway via various wild lovers, which does lead to a hilarious story about a heart-shaped bathtub Marie will later use to mock Malcolm’s inflated ego.

Masterful films dependent solely on dialogue, like Mike Nichols’s “Closer,” have the hidden trick of using language to form images or stories in our head. Levinson seems to feel that because “Malcolm & Marie” is already visually lush, the language can stand on its own as graduate student-level woe is me monologues. The longest involves Malcolm desperately getting past a paywall to read the first major review of his movie by “the white girl from the L.A. Times.” Granted Washington gives his all in this exasperating moment, as Malcolm goes into a loud ramble about political movies, Black filmmakers, Orson Welles, intersectional topics, the pain of being a director trying to say something in a commercial world, etc. All this before Marie points out he’s chosen the most commercialized profession in the world, where celebrities love being “woke” while still chasing after big money. She sums up as Malcolm being a “hoe.” Every word never feels like these characters talking, but Levinson. He’s expressed his critiques much better in work like his underrated 2018 neon-colored satire “Assassination Nation.” 

“Malcolm & Marie” is essentially a director talking to himself. It never feels as if we are meant to sympathize with this couple, but merely gaze at them as conduits for whatever Levinson is grappling with in the writing. It’s watchable because the confined setting lets Zendaya and Washington’s talents shine. Zendaya sheds her teenage persona from “Euphoria” and “Spider-Man,” becoming a sharp adult who can see through Malcolm’s selfish excuses and even gaslight him in one scene to thoroughly deliver a lesson. Washington’s role is a perfect channeling of every privileged, tortured “auteur” privately embarrassed by the good cards life dealt them, while insisting they’re social radicals. You can sense the collective eye rolls in the audience when he bemoans that people don’t watch “Citizen Kane” anymore. But the film is asking us to endure such a person with the same feel you would have sitting next to them entrapped in a West L.A. coffee shop, without silky photography and flowing tracking shots.

This is Levinson’s second major conversational piece in the last two months or so. In December he released a “Euphoria” special episode with Zendaya’s Rue sitting for the whole hour in a coffee shop, discussing life with her rehab sponsor. It was a more static production, but the dialogue had more meaning. “Malcolm & Marie” does not have the real sense of intimacy that comes with a couple that truly know each other, which Angelina Jolie captured better in her own meandering contemplation on famous couples, “By the Sea.” Unless you’re an emerging film director with a model girlfriend, prone to arguments about the creative process and how much she or your ex’s influenced the script, “Malcolm & Marie” will feel like watching a couple fighting on Mars. It’s an expertly well-played couple, but the kind better left to figure out their own issues without us as the third wheel.

Malcolm & Marie” begins streaming Feb. 5 on Netflix.