“Malcolm & Marie,” a two-hander starring Zendaya and John David Washington and now streaming on Netflix, is a pandemic movie. It was shot during lockdown, in one location under strict health protocols, but there’s no mention of a virus or masks. Instead, it crackles with anxiety, a feeling many are now all too familiar with.
Washington and Zendaya are the titular couple, an up-and-coming movie director and aspiring actress. Their romantic relationship is strained when he forgets to thank her from the stage during his new film’s premier. She’s not in the movie, but believes much of the story was borrowed from the more troubled moments of her life. It’s 1 am, tensions are running high as the gloves come off in an escalating power struggle.
Shot in luscious, grainy black and white, the study of a creator and his muse id first and foremost a showcase for the talent of its stars. Both drip charisma and deliver pages of complicated, emotionally draining dialogue with conviction and ease.
Malcolm is all bluster, a character prone to long diatribes about the politicization of art made by Black directors, the inability of film critics to judge his work fairly and, most importantly, why Marie is upset. He is blinded by ego and insecurity and Washington digs deep to summon his inner demons. His near constant stream of film references—Ed Wood, Ida Lupino, William Wyler, Elaine May and Barry Jenkins to mention a few—that may leave non-cinephiles looking to connect the dots.
Marie is just as fiery but more self-aware. Her frustration bubbles throughout but Zendaya brings layers to her. In the film’s first half she is glammed-up, wearing a sparkling red carpet-ready dress. Midway through she changes into lounge wear and with the change of clothes comes subtle changes to the character. She becomes more real, less guarded. It is a lovely, challenging performance from the recent Emmy winner.
“Malcolm & Marie” has a luscious sheen to the cinematography, some great lifestyle porn—their beachfront mansion is straight out of “Architectural Digest”—and terrific performances, so I have to wonder why I didn’t like it more. Director Sam Levinson provides both style and some substance but watching the movie feels like eavesdropping on a rehearsal for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Ripe with tension, anxiety and some good old-fashioned name calling, it’s an exercise in unfiltered self-indulgence that revels in its louder moments when, in fact, it works best when it is more subdued.