'Malcolm & Marie': Film Review

Malcolm & Marie
Courtesy of Netflix

Zendaya and John David Washington in 'Malcolm & Marie'

Love and art in a pressure cooker.

Zendaya reunites with 'Euphoria' creator Sam Levinson, starring opposite John David Washington in this volatile two-hander about the long night of emotional reckoning that follows a rising-star director's splashy premiere.

After all the passion and grievances stirred up in Malcolm & Marie, it's a tad on the nose to hear Cee-Lo on the Outkast track "Liberation" sing about the "fine line between love and hate." But it's glorious to watch Zendaya, in a commanding turn that cements her arrival as a grownup movie star, skate along that line with both raw emotionality and the jaded remove of a perceptive woman toughened by experience. Sam Levinson's intense chamber drama explores the complex contracts of partnership while also examining life inside the bubble of the entertainment business, in particular the way artists can suck up all the oxygen in a relationship.

The artist in question is emerging filmmaker Malcolm, played by John David Washington in a performance that's forceful, charismatic and convincing while not entirely escaping a certain studied athleticism that points up the very actor-y nature of Levinson's undertaking. All that emphatic gesticulation has a way of making some speeches play like audition pieces in an insightful script peppered with monologues that don't always seem 100 percent organic.

The writer-director makes no such declaration in the press notes, but this seems clearly an homage to the gnawing intimacy of John Cassavetes, contoured around the personas of two beautiful young exemplars of 21st century Hollywood. There are frequent echoes, too, of Mike Nichols' evergreen screen version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — not just in the dynamic of the sparring couple but also in the high-contrast black and white visuals of virtuoso cinematographer Marcell Rév. The seductive fluidity of the camerawork, as much as the punchy performances and muscular writing, keep Malcolm & Marie compelling even when it risks becoming an extended exercise in style.

The production was hatched after shooting on season two of Levinson's HBO series Euphoria was delayed due to COVID-19 lockdown; it was filmed during the window that opened up, in a single location under strict pandemic protocols. Zendaya's character Marie, a recovering addict whose experiences hitting rock bottom and coming out the other side inspired Malcolm's debut feature, could easily be a more evolved version of Rue Bennett, her role on the fucked-up teen odyssey Euphoria, several years down the track.

Unlike other high-profile pandemic shoots (looking at you, Locked Down), there’s no whiff of gimmickry here. Levinson and his collaborators, including several principal crew from Euphoria, have fashioned a self-contained drama that unfolds realistically in and around an isolated house over the course of one night, much of it in real time. It opens with the headlights of Malcolm and Marie's car on approach after the drive home from his big Los Angeles premiere, and ends with them waking up the next morning, standing side by side against a backdrop of nature right out of Ansel Adams — so beautiful it looks almost stylized. That closing shot, masterfully framed by Rév through a triple bedroom window, enhances the meta aspect of the film by conjuring the effect of a movie screen.

The actual story location appears from a quick reference to be Malibu, though the film was shot in Northern California, at a private residence on the Santa Lucia Preserve in Carmel. Designed by architect Jonathan Feldman and known as the Caterpillar House, it's a squat midcentury modern box that seems to expand from within, lined with large windows that allow for both inside and out perspective. The rolling hills and gnarled trees that surround it, exquisitely lit, make for a striking diorama.

From the moment they stagger into the house like glam young alternate-universe versions of George and Martha, it's clear there's tension in the air. Malcolm is half-smashed and naturally high off the rousing reception of a movie already being hailed as the breakthrough of a major new talent, while Marie is pissed. He pours himself a drink and dances around the living room in his tux to James Brown — with Rév's camera as his partner in a gorgeous pan across the space. Looking like a runway queen in her slinky metallic halter dress with ample cutouts, she prepares him a pot of mac and cheese while making no effort to hide her fatigue at the end of a long evening. Domestic goddess is obviously not her dream job.

Malcolm rails at being called the next Spike Lee or John Singleton when he really wants to be a William Wyler, acclaimed for the heart of his material and not through the narrow lens of identity politics. That gripe is magnified into an all-out tirade later in the night, when the Los Angeles Times review pops up online, and laudatory comments like "cinematic tour de force" and "genuine masterwork" do nothing to appease his anger about the deadening effect of over-analyzation by a "white lady" critic whose intelligence he holds in low esteem.

The funny love-hate rants about critics here will make many in the trade wistful for the communal experience of a packed press screening. It's easy to imagine lines like "brilliantly subverts the white-savior trope" getting a huge laugh.

Marie's deadpan amusement extends to the hoopla around the film itself. She comments on the paradox of the film's lead actress in a $2,000 dress talking about socialism on a red carpet before informing Malcolm, "Nobody cares what you have to say." Her cynicism about the entertainment industry is fueled not just by first-hand observation of ambitious Malcolm's part in the process but by her own now aborted attempts to find a niche as an actress.

The real nub of her magnificently cool animosity, however, is his failure to thank her in a gushy speech that mentioned everyone except her — the woman who not only read endless drafts and gave detailed notes, but whose earlier life as an addict shaped the entire narrative. Malcolm dismantles that theory with vicious cruelty after she pushes his buttons, but he's less skilled at explaining why he didn't cast her in a role supposedly written for her, which she suggests is all about his reluctance to share the stage.

The slings and arrows tossed back and forth, sometimes playfully, elsewhere with blunt force, veer occasionally toward a peculiar kind of self-indulgence that mythologizes the Hollywood ecosystem as a breeding ground for hyper-articulate monomaniacs — a suspicion amplified by the lofty phrase "from visionary director Sam Levinson" on the Netflix trailer. But there's enough substance here to make Malcolm & Marie work as a forensic examination of any relationship as the imbalances in a mutual support system are exposed, making way for stinging truths.

Washington holds his own throughout but it's MVP Zendaya who carries the movie, revealing as much in Marie's loaded silences as she does in her words. Malcolm scoffs at the hackneyed virtue of "authenticity" in film appreciation, but Marie mocks his skepticism in just a few chilling minutes where she knowingly destroys his composure and undermines his smug superiority. Watching her store up resentments and accusations to be deployed for maximum impact when appropriate lends mesmerizing power to Zendaya's performance. Even in periods of détente, you can see Marie's mind ticking, assessing whether there's a future for her in the relationship.

Their sexy, sad, furious tango is perhaps most interesting for the way in which Levinson's sympathies tip not to the auteur hungry for recognition but to the fiercely intelligent woman he tends to take for granted. Zendaya certainly earns the attention.

Production companies: Little Lamb, in association with FotoKem
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Zendaya, John David Washington
Director-screenwriter: Sam Levinson
Producers: Kevin Turen, Ashley Levinson, Sam Levinson, Zendaya, John David Washington
Executive producers: Will Greenfield, Aaron L. Gilbert, Yariv Milchan, Michael Schaefer, Scott Mescudi
Director of photography:
Marcell Rév
Production designer: Michael Grasley

Costume designer: Law Roach, Samantha McMillen
Music: Labrinth
Editor: Julio C. Perez IV
Rated R, 105 minutes