Malcolm is a screenwriter. His first directing effort premiered earlier this evening. The movie he’s made is highly autobiographical — except that only the auto part is his; the biographical part belongs to his longtime girlfriend, Marie, an unsuccessful actress.
They’re staying in a nice house in Malibu. “Malcolm & Marie” begins with their return there, after the premiere. It’s a great shot, headlights in the black-and-white distance. Yes, “Malcolm & Marie” is in black and white, like another recent Hollywood-related Netflix movie, “Mank.” Is this a trend? If so, it’s a good one.
“Malcolm & Marie” is about the several hours following the title characters’ arrival — some mac and cheese (made by her), some drinking (by him), a reading out loud of an early online review, and all the while lots of arguing.
“Malcolm,” Marie says, “I promise you, nothing productive is going to be said tonight.” Maybe, maybe not, but a lot sure does get said, often at high volume. “Malcolm & Marie” must have the highest ratio of arguing to action of any movie since John Cassavetes died. Depending on how you feel about Cassavetes, that’s either praise of a high order or warning to the wise.
There’s a brief glimpse of the morning after — “morning after” literal as well as figurative. A late night that started out as the couple unwinding, then became their unraveling, has become — well, it’s unclear. That’s not spoiler avoidance. It’s acknowledging the unwillingness of writer-director Sam Levinson (“Assassination Nation,” 2018) to go for easy emotional answers.
It’s not hard to see the script’s appeal for the actors, John David Washington and Zendaya. Playing the only characters in the movie, they get a very serious workout and give seriously good performances.
Washington’s quizzicality was the best thing in “BlackkKlansman” (2018), and his sturdy presence was the closest approximation “Tenet” (2020) had to a tether to reality. Washington was required to demonstrate such restraint in those movies that it’s nice to see him get to play so much looser here. Looser but not loose: What may be most distinctive about him as an actor is a fundamental wariness (with his father, Denzel Washington, it’s an innate authority). At some level, he’s watching himself watching us as we watch him.
Zendaya plays Marie. She’s probably best known for her with-it ingénue roles in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017) and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” (2019). Only 24, she alternately seems schoolgirl-young and empress-ageless. Marie begins the movie as Malcolm’s junior partner, eye candy in a showy halter gown. By its end, she’s fully asserted her codependent authority. Malcolm is now more consort than monarch.
Marcell Rév’s cinematography manages to look luxurious yet chaste. It acts as a kind of shock absorber for all the emotion. The house does, too. Call its style Modern Recessive Nondescript: lots of open space, hard surfaces (metal, glass, stone). It’s such a presence it’s practically a third character: blank and accepting and nonjudgmental, as neither of the principals are. Levinson skillfully uses the spaciousness of the house — it has a nice deck, too — to keep the staginess of the setup from ever feeling stage bound.
Both the black-and-white photography and the style of house lend “Malcolm & Marie” a ’50s aspect, as do the font of the credits and Levinson’s placing them at the opening of the film. Throw in lots of movie-industry talk, and there’s an echo of Robert Aldrich’s “The Big Knife” (1955).
Levinson, like Washington, is Hollywood royalty. His father is writer-director Barry Levinson (“Diner,” 1982; “Rain Man,” 1988). This presumably accounts for the industry stuff having a nice, insidery spin — sometimes too-insidery.
Movie politics matter less, though, than the sexual and racial kind. Their importance isn’t ’50s whatsoever. In that sense, “Malcolm & Marie” is more end run than throwback. Yet matters get tricky here. Marie is strong, articulate, forceful. Yet in nearly every scene she’s either in a midriff-baring gown, taking a bath, or wearing just a camisole and panties. Yes, several times the dialogue mentions the male gaze. But is that acknowledgment forthright, hypocritical, or both? Toward the end of the movie, we do get to see Washington bare chested, and a fine chest it is.
As this is America in 2021, race gets trickier still. Washington and Zendaya being Black, it understandably figures a great deal in the dialogue. Does it matter that Levinson, who wrote the words, is white? You tell me. Interestingly enough, when the movie feels phony, as it sometimes does, the phoniness invariably has to do with emotion, which has a tendency to get overblown: drama giving way to melodrama. That’s very ’50s, too. “You’re psychotic,” Malcolm accuses Marie at one point. Her comeback: “And you’re hyperbolic.” If he were right, “Malcolm & Marie” would be a very different movie. That would also be true if she were wrong, but she’s not.
MALCOLM & MARIE
Written and directed by Sam Levinson. Starring John David Washington and Zendaya. On Netflix. 106 minutes. R (language, sexual situations, smoking).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.