Conceived, shot, and sold to Netflix in the summer months after the coronavirus brought the country to a standstill, Sam Levinson’s exasperatingly gorgeous “Malcolm & Marie” is a lot like the two people who lend its title their names: confident and insecure in equal measure, stuffed to the gills with big ideas but convinced of nothing beyond its own frenzied existence, and reverent of Hollywood’s past at the same time it’s trying to stake a new claim for its future. It’s possible that some of those qualities apply more to Malcolm than Marie, but that doesn’t feel like a distinction worth making when neither of these characters amount to anything more than red carpet-ready straw-men for the heated argument that Levinson is having with himself.
Here is a movie with so many conflicting takes on the overlapping natures of artistic and romantic collaboration that it can only end once Levinson’s sweatiest thoughts have wrestled each other to an exhausted stalemate. Despite the undeniable charge of watching the “Euphoria” creator fashion such a flamboyantly romantic spectacle during the sterility of our Zoom year (a far cry from the back-to-basics brilliance of the recent episode he made for the HBO show during its COVID hiatus), Levinson’s high-contrast, low-reward drama is also a stunning example of how airless a film can become when it’s shot in a bubble. And for all the lightning-in-a-bottle energy that jolts this glitzy experiment to life — an electric current that John David Washington and Zendaya carry from station to station like a third rail — the whole thing is suffocated by the same oppressive solipsism that Malcolm and Marie are both trying to solve for themselves.
Malcolm is a hotshot director on a major high from the premiere of his rapturously well-received breakthrough feature about a young woman’s struggle with drugs; giddy and spiteful in equal measure, he raves that “the white guy from IndieWire loved it” as part of a virtuosic rant against the soft bigotry of framing every Black story through a political lens. Marie is the long-suffering girlfriend, recovering addict, and potential muse who Malcolm forgot to thank during his pre-screening remarks. She’s also the only person in Malcolm’s life who loves him too much to get high on his newfound hype; in a film that requires Zendaya to do so much that precious little of her ultra-capable performance stands out, it’s impossible to shake the withering look on her face when Marie implies that Malcolm consciously “Green Book”-ed her life story. At least, to the point where she can barely see her own reflection in a movie that people will champion for its representational power.
Levinson’s film starts with Malcolm and Marie arriving back at Carmel’s famous, glass-paneled Caterpillar House in the wee hours after the big premiere, as the unspoken — soon to be very spoken — resentment festering between them begins to rear its ugly head in real-time. We clock what’s about to happen before Malcolm does, and not only because he’s too busy dancing around to James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City” to see Marie sulk into the bathroom as soon as they get inside (she can’t even pee without radiating her disdain). He doesn’t see her because he never bothers to look, and he never bothers to look because he trusts that she’s always there. Malcolm feels safe in the assumption that the much-younger Marie still depends on him as much as she did when he helped her get clean, and every aspect of the no-holds-barred fight that ensues can be traced back to that cardinal sin.
The unstable relationship between love and need is quickly established as the most intriguing through-line of a logorrheic script that filters the give-and-take of artistic creation through the lens of a romantic relationship, and vice-versa. The problem is that the conflict between Malcolm and Marie hinges on years of stockpiled resentment, and every poison-tipped reference to something that happened in the past reinforces the feeling that neither of these characters exist beyond the confines of this movie. They’re born the minute they pull up to the Caterpillar House, they’re voided as soon as they step outside the next morning, and they spend every second of their short lives so feverishly diagnosing each other that it feels as if they’re playing a strange game of chicken: First person to admit they’re just a narrative device loses.
For all of the horrible ugliness that Malcolm and Marie sling at each other in the service of Levinson’s ravishing John Cassavetes cosplay (to pluck one of the more helpful names from the film’s nebulous cloud of inspirations), the movie around them is caught somewhere in the fog between practice and theory. Every show-stopping torrent of insults about something that happened earlier that day or five years ago reinforces the unreality of these characters and calls new attention to the artifice of pseudo-intellectual scaffolding that Levinson uses to prop them up. The closer that Malcolm and Marie get to breaking up, the harder it is to believe they were ever together.
It’s frustrating to see two brilliant actors work so hard to evolve these characters beyond their narrow concepts; it’s like watching Tiger Woods play a full round of miniature golf with the same intensity he brings to the Masters. Washington is a force of nature in the role of an abusive narcissist whose charisma is undercut by his cruelty, but there’s only so much you can do with a character who’s constantly punching down at his statuesque girlfriend in order to feel tall, and/or motor-mouthing his way through a zillion different instances in which the Pinter-esque precision of Levinson’s writing chafes against his penchant for expanding every thought into a cringe-worthy millennial think-piece. Not even Sully Sullenberger could hope to land the line where Malcolm insults Marie as “a level-one boss” in a video game (Washington at least has the wisdom to speed through it).
Zendaya is equally impressive as Marie, and not as burdened with bad material. She spends most of the movie weathering Malcolm’s unmoored ego trip, but no one is as good as Zendaya at wallowing in the love that they think they deserve; her indignant performance is the only reason we accept that Marie wouldn’t have left Malcolm by now. Levinson is so well-attuned to the “Euphoria” star’s energy and how it carries through the Caterpillar House (“Assassination Nation” survivors will note the expressive maturity of an early long-take that unfolds like a veritable quote-tweet of the home invasion sequence from Levinson’s risible 2018 satire), and Marcell Rév’s luminous black-and-white cinematography is so beautiful that even the film’s most gratuitous, self-insistent moments go down easy.
But the undeniable craft on display in “Malcolm & Marie” isn’t the film’s only saving grace; thirsty for attention as the final product might be, its flashiness belies an impressive resourcefulness and a vivid sense of self-reflection. Nepotism has made Levinson an easy target, but — even in its own maddeningly rhetorical way — “Malcolm & Marie” finds Barry’s son seizing on a rare moment when the film industry has slowed down long enough to reconsider how it works, and using his privilege to interrogate the various agendas that it serves.
Is it possible to be a radical in the commercial film business, or — in Marie’s words — is Malcolm just a “hoe” who’s laundering his career through the language of white liberalism? How are marginalized artists supposed to thread the needle between telling personal stories and parroting what vanilla-ass critics like yours truly want to hear so they can feel inclusive without relinquishing their authority over the culture? And, to a more (groan) universal point, what happens when the desire to be seen grows so intense that it leads people to lose sight of anyone else? These are the kinds of things that Levinson’s film asks itself so loudly that you have to wonder if Malcolm can’t hear his own tirades.
The angriest passages — the ones where Marie seems to disappear for a few minutes at a time — tip just far enough into the Twilight Zone to evoke the recent, post-modern likes of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” But where that film subverted reality in order to explore how people see one another through the prisms of their own perspective, this one wants to have its mac and cheese and eat it too (at one point Washington is just a few tense spoonfuls away from doing for Kraft what Rooney Mara once did for pie).
It’s an eye-popping movie about shortsightedness and neglect; a commentary on self-absorption made by a skilled artist who’s scared to death that you’ll stop paying attention to his work for a single millisecond. “I wrote and directed a movie that knocked the audience the FUCK out tonight!” Malcolm erupts as soon as he enters the picture, and you can’t help but wonder if Levinson is second-guessing his own need for that same reaction. Maybe that’s wishful thinking.
Netflix will release “Malcolm & Marie” in select theaters on Friday, January 29. It will be available to stream on Netflix on Friday, February 5.