Ever been trapped between a couple engaged in a volatile and cruel argument, but had no exit plan?
That’s kind of what you are in for when you embark on the long day’s journey into night (and dawn) of “Malcolm & Marie,” a literate, verbal smackdown between two self-absorbed L.A. types arguing about art, life and an L.A. Times film critic. It makes for an artsy, sometimes uncomfortable, intermittently interesting two-person movie conceived and shot during the pandemic by Sam Levinson, creator of HBO’s “Euphoria.”
What makes this ode to disharmony bearable is that the two people taking target practice at each other are played by Oakland’s Zendaya and “Tenet’s” John David Washington.
Both are tremendous as muse and creator rejoicing and bickering after what Malcolm (Washington) declares — a number of shouted times — “the biggest night of my life,” the Hollywood premiere for a film of which he is writer, producer and director, and which he sees as his possible big breakthrough.
But this is not destined to be joyous night from the minute Marie and Malcolm return to their artfully designed Malibu home and they start to tear into each other. Even a mac-and-cheese snack turns into a defiant act.
The 20-year-old Marie (Zendaya) is understandably upset that Malcolm didn’t thank her in his onstage remarks during the premiere, especially after he gushed about everyone else. Since her story inspired his movie — about a drug-addicted young woman spiraling down without a safety net — you can see why she’s miffed.
It is that snub that triggers falling Dominos of outrage, with insecure monologues about craft, racism, sexism, ambition, appropriation, critics and relationships. Spike Lee’s name gets referenced. So does Swiss-German director William Wyler’s.
While it’s refreshing to see a contemporary spin on the issues at hand, “Malcom & Marie” doesn’t say much more than these two people are miserable. So, we’re left absorbing the all-to-familiar scenes of a rocky relationship. Ingmar Bergman catalogued the self-destruction of a relationship so well in “Scenes of a Marriage,” and Woody Allen observed it with his “Interiors.” Writer Sam Levinson draws on those Hollywood films, to the point of shooting “M&M” in stunning black and white, a contrast to the anything-but-clear conversations that ensue.
But he doesn’t take this project much further than that, meaning that this film emerges as mainly a series of verbal thrusts and parries, with the occasional walk or venture outside for a smoke thrown in. Most of “M&M” consists of conversations and jabs, and they pile on so thick that it all becomes uninteresting. Worse yet, they often feel inauthentic — and this is a film that is all about authenticity.
Still, Levinson is a talented director and screenwriter. He draws out two of these stars’ best performances. He worked with Zendya on HBO’s “Euphoria,” so he knows she can convey a lot of emotions — one scene of her sitting in a bathtub as she literally soaks in Malcolm’s monologue expresses more than dialogue can. It’s a beautiful scene.
And it is in these wordless reactions when “Marie & Malcolm” says a lot more than words can. You just wish there were more moments like that. Instead, Levinson spills forth a stampede of words, each colliding into each other to create a literate erudite stew that sounds phony at times.
Some of it works. A line like “even feedback comes with an IOU” makes you want to write it down for use later. But then comes a stilted remark like “I know I’m emotionally obtuse at times” that rings hollow and trite. Who really talks like that?
The tendency to overwrite leads “Malcolm & Marie” to join other recent “Hollywood” films such as “Black Bear” that turn the lens on the self-absorbed lives of others. During times like these, it’s hard to feel engaged with either Malcolm or Marie’s as they snarl, fight and make out in a majestic, stunning dream home on the cushy SoCal coast. We’re asked to care, but do we?
Contact Randy Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘MALCOLM AND MARIE’
2 stars out of 4
Rated: R (language, sexual content)
Cast: Zendaya, John David Washington
Director, writer: Sam Levinson
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
When and where: Available Feb. 5; Netflix