By Ann Hornaday
The title characters of “Malcolm & Marie,” an up-and-coming film director and his gorgeous, whippet-thin girlfriend, are just getting home from his latest premiere as the movie opens.
It's around 1am in Malibu, Calif., and as they enter the chic, low-slung house where they're staying, they don't say a word. Hiking up her spangly sheath, Marie uses the bathroom while Malcolm fixes a drink and listens to James Brown.
So far, so unremarkable. But once the silence is broken – once Malcolm asks Marie if anything's wrong while she's fixing him a midnight snack – the floodgates open.
It turns out that plenty is wrong for Marie, for whom a slight earlier in the evening has metastasised into everything that's wrong with Malcolm, their relationship and his art.
What starts out looking like a commercial for a luxury brand aimed at prosperous millennials ends up more akin to “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” albeit with prettier people. It's going to be a bumpy night but never at the expense of silky, aspirational style.
The reference to Mike Nichols's 1966 film is definitely intended by writer-director Sam Levinson, who has shot “Malcolm & Marie” on black-and-white film stock, giving this sometimes intriguing, sometimes self-indulgent exercise the sheen of historic cinema.
Filmed on a tight schedule in the “Caterpillar House” in Carmel, Calif. as one of the first productions to get underway during strict Covid-era protocols, “Malcolm & Marie” makes resourceful use of its built environment, an enticing maze of horizontal planes and glossy reflective windows and mirrors through which the characters move with unforced ease.
In that first scene, cinematographer Marcell Rév follows Malcolm – played by John David Washington – as he dances to “Down and Out in New York City,” the camera observing from outside as he glides and bops through the living room, at one point hopping on to a window ledge out of pure exuberance. Malcolm's movie has all the makings of an instant hit – his first. Who wouldn't jump for joy?
When Marie brings him down to earth, it's not clear if she's being a passive-aggressive wet blanket or if she might have a point.
Levinson clearly had the intense two-handers of Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavetes in mind when he created “Malcolm & Marie,” in which Zendaya brings her signature brand of watchfulness and ferocity to a character who's never quite reliable but, somehow, always utterly believable.
This movie may not have the emotional heft of the forebears Levinson so self-consciously references, but there's little doubt that Marie's complaints will be familiar to anyone who has felt taken for granted or poorly treated, whether at the hands of a lover or a business partner.
In the real-time argument that ensues – punctuated by shouts, murmurs, microaggressions and micro-reconciliations – Marie will give voice to everything from the invisibility of women's emotional labour to the psychodynamics of the artist-muse hierarchy.
That sounds awfully pretentious – just the kind of gobbledygook that Malcolm can't stand when it comes to the critics who, on this night at least, were fawning over his work.
He's particularly bothered by a journalist who insisted on comparing him to Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins instead of William Wyler. (“It was a super-White moment,” he recalls.) Some of the most trenchant – and entertaining – soliloquies in “Malcolm & Marie” find Washington's title character fulminating against the tendency of White critics to frame work by African American artists as specifically political instead of universally human, rants that ring even truer (and funnier) when Marie chimes in with spot-on imitations of earnest studio executives giving lip service to inclusion.
The pleasure of “Malcolm & Marie” lies in similarly glancing but semi-profound revelations, whether they have to do with self-sabotage, fraudulence, the male gaze or creative vampirism.
If the actual drama often feels both ginned-up and padded-out – if all the angst often feels like an excuse for two gorgeous creatures to swan around a cool house for a couple of hours – it's couched in an exceedingly appealing package, which includes the magnificent setting, Rév's sensuous photography and a flawless soundtrack and musical score (the latter composed by Labrinth).
Mostly, “Malcolm & Marie” showcases the incandescent talent of Zendaya, with whom Levinson works on the HBO series “Euphoria” and who from the beginning of her career had all the attributes of a natural, self-possessed talent.
Graciously accompanied by Washington (who can even make eating mac-and-cheese compelling), Zendaya emerges as the star of this show, delivering a performance that calls on sudden, turn-on-a-dime reversals – emotional figure-eights that she executes with impressive, unstudied finesse.
At one point, Levinson films one of those transitions so that her face is upside down. But even from that angle, she makes her feelings clear. And whoever's in the way should probably duck.