Review: Zendaya is great. The rest of ‘Malcolm & Marie,’ not so much

John David Washington and Zendaya in the movie "Malcolm & Marie."
(Dominic Miller / Netflix)

One of the big questions in “Malcolm & Marie,” an attractively photographed shouting match written and directed by Sam Levinson, is whether or not we can divine a filmmaker’s motives from their work. Malcolm, a director himself, insists that we cannot, that our analytical jurisdiction is limited to the visible evidence: the form, the technique, the aesthetics. (Speaking of which: This movie, shot on black-and-white film by Marcell Rév at a gorgeous home in Carmel, is not without its aesthetic pleasures.) A filmmaker’s deeper intentions, Malcolm suggests, are fundamentally off-limits, as are any conclusions we might be tempted to draw from their personal identity, which are likely to generate biased, presumptuous judgments that have more to do with politics than art.

That’s an arguable (and arguably irrelevant) point, but it does provide a nifty intellectual smokescreen for Levinson, a filmmaker who likes to poke at politics and play games with the viewer’s expectations. For nearly two hours he grants us a ringside seat to an epic lovers’ quarrel between Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya), who have just returned home after the premiere of Malcolm’s new movie. The barrage isn’t relentless; there are breaks for make-up sex, a little Dionne Warwick and a big bowl of mac ’n’ cheese. But as the (sometimes literal) knives come out and dueling views about love, cinema, race and gender take center stage, we are invited to continually adjust our sympathies and to ponder which character most closely aligns with Levinson’s own point of view.

The easy answer would be Malcolm, introduced basking in the afterglow of a warm reception for his latest feature. By this point in his career he’s achieved enough success to generate comparisons to Barry Jenkins and John Singleton — and also to wonder why, as a Black filmmaker, he only gets compared to other Black filmmakers. Marie, an on-and-off actress in her 20s, listens silently for a while before nudging the conversation in a more pointed, uncomfortable direction. Malcolm notably failed to thank her during his speech at his premiere, despite having acknowledged just about everyone else — an oversight that signals more than mere forgetfulness.


What it signals, Marie argues, is his deep, unacknowledged guilt at having consciously taken elements of her own traumatic experience and exploited them for the purposes of his art. Malcolm, for his part, forcefully rejects this accusation and the assumption underlying it. His heroine may have some things in common with Marie — they both struggled with drug addiction and suicidal impulses before getting clean at the age of 20 — but he insists the character’s true inspirations lie elsewhere. “You’re so f— solipsistic,” Malcolm spits at Marie, “that you see yourself in everything, even things that you had nothing to do with.”

John David Washington and Zendaya in their kitchen in the movie "Malcolm & Marie."
John David Washington and Zendaya in the movie “Malcolm & Marie.”
(Dominic Miller / Netflix)

That’s a pretty harsh insult in a movie full of them, but I’m going to risk becoming its target and allow myself my own moment of solipsism. In a way, Levinson hasn’t given me much choice. One of his unseen but oft-referenced villains is a Los Angeles Times film critic who panned Malcolm’s previous movie, but who has apparently seen the light, having basically prostrated herself before him after the premiere and marveled at his latest cinematic vision. Before the night is through, said L.A. Times critic will have posted a gushy, flat-footed review — tucked away behind a paywall, in the script’s most relatably amusing detail — that declares Malcolm’s movie “a cinematic tour de force” and “a genuine masterwork.”

“Malcolm & Marie,” as it happens, is neither. At first glance the characters’ raised voices and frayed nerves, plus the monochrome palette and the occasional studied jiggle of the camera, seem to evoke the up-close-and-personal immediacy of early John Cassavetes. (The two-hander structure and the single-location setting were partly dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the film was swiftly conceived, shot and edited.) But Levinson’s screenplay, with its carefully engineered pivots from Defensive Monologue A to Overlong Diatribe B, has none of Cassavetes’ ragged spontaneity. Nor, despite Zendaya’s lip-quivering intensity and Washington’s impressive lung power, does their study of a tempestuous relationship approach equivalent depths of searching, searing emotional honesty.

But in the interest of honesty — something that Malcolm and Marie keep demanding of each other, if not always of themselves — I can’t deny that it gives me some pleasure, and some pause, to report all this. Am I not falling into a cleverly laid trap by suggesting that Malcolm’s reflexively scornful view of critics — or his all-around insufferableness as a character — might be a reflection of Levinson’s own views? Isn’t it just as fair to wonder if Marie, pushing back against Malcolm at almost every turn, might speak for him as well?

For that matter: Should I feel relieved or slighted that the fictional critic in question, referred to incessantly throughout as “the white lady from the L.A. Times,” is likely a fictionalized version of someone other than myself? Or should I feel indignant that she might easily be construed as a stand-in for my friend Katie Walsh, who notably panned Levinson’s 2018 movie, “Assassination Nation,” in a freelance review for the L.A. Times, describing it (accurately) as “a badly bungled attempt at social commentary”?

Zendaya and John David Washington in the movie "Malcolm & Marie."
(Dominic Miller/ Netflix)

I’ll suspend that last question for now, on the charitable assumption that Levinson couldn’t possibly be that petty, even if his dialogue here practically constitutes a textbook on human pettiness. Whether or not he is indulging a thinly veiled, verbally abusive revenge fantasy, he seems to have a great deal to vent about critics in general, much of it rooted in a predictably low opinion of their professional qualifications. And if I am violating Malcolm’s rule about not jumping to conclusions about an artist’s intentions, I must confess that I don’t particularly buy Malcolm as a character to begin with, that he strikes me as little more than a very handsome, very loud mouthpiece for someone else’s tedious, reactionary views about art. He’s also just so hard to take after a while that it scarcely matters, in the end, whether Levinson agrees with him or not.

Marie is another story, not least because she has clearly been conceived as a rebuke to Malcolm’s expletive-riddled invective. You might not always agree with her every rejoinder, whether she’s implying that commercial filmmakers are essentially hustlers or insisting that authenticity in art matters as much as aesthetics (a point that she drives home in one hair-raising standout of a scene). But Zendaya, who recently won an Emmy for her performance as a teenage drug addict on Levinson’s HBO series “Euphoria,” has a way of rendering dialogue irrelevant. She holds a closeup here more skillfully and naturally than her co-star does, and her silence proves far more eloquent than his words.

And those words turn out to be the undoing of “Malcolm & Marie,” not just because there are so many of them, but because they feel like the building blocks of a meta-movie parlor trick, an intellectual exercise that exists for no purpose other than its own justification. The logic seems to be that you’ll hear Marie’s reservations about the nudity in Malcolm’s movie and perhaps take less issue with how skimpily attired and leeringly photographed Zendaya is in much of this one. Maybe after listening to Malcolm’s lengthy rant about how dumb it is to interpret art through a political lens, you’ll be too exhausted to question the wisdom of a white filmmaker using a Black character to advance that opinion.

Which is not to suggest that Malcolm speaks for his maker alone. At one point he tells Marie, “None of this s— is necessary.” The L.A. Times critic agrees.

‘Malcolm & Marie’

Rating: R, for pervasive language and sexual content

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

Playing: Starts Jan. 29 in limited release where theaters are open; available Feb. 5 on Netflix