This two-hander from writer-director Sam Levinson starring John David Washington and Zendaya can be shouty, hammy and shrill, with handbrake-turn theatrical mood shifts. At its worst, it feels like an insufferable vanity project. But it’s pugnaciously well-acted, flavoured with vinegary insights and rage-filled denunciations, and a hilarious set piece of scorn about how awful film critics are.
Malcolm (Washington) is a conceited young movie director and Marie (Zendaya) his smart, gorgeous girlfriend, returning to the fancy house rented for them by the production company after the gloriously successful premiere of his first feature. Malcolm pours himself one out in their luxury kitchen, puts James Brown on the sound system and is keen to indulge a new, private afterparty mood of angry triumph and self-congratulation that he couldn’t really show the other guests earlier. But Marie is simmering with discontent due to his failure to thank her in his gushing post-screening speech. She is deeply hurt by his failure to acknowledge that his movie is surely inspired by her own desperately unhappy life. Their subsequent ferocious row takes in sex, relationships, celebrity, the movies, the artist’s burden and what they both face as people of colour.
Malcolm & Marie is one of the first substantial feature films to have been made under Covid-compliant conditions, a project embarked on when Levinson’s HBO TV show Euphoria starring Zendaya had to be paused. Lockdown has enforced a new intimacy on us all, and intimacy is to some degree what this movie is about, although its formality and theatricality often rather precludes this. There’s a fair bit of shouting and actor-speechifying in the film. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, although without this rhetorical mannerism Zendaya would not have been able to pull off a brilliant I’ll-have-what-she’s-having moment of deception near the end.
The film can be self-conscious, even humourless. But there is a great scene when the first review comes through on Malcolm’s phone and he convulses with nerves. It is written by someone he derisively calls the “white girl from the LA Times” who had praised him at the party earlier, and he screams with rage when he realises he has to get through the paywall and scrambles for his credit card.
Washington is very funny as he shows us how Malcolm is incandescent with rage at every single aspect of this review: even by the fact that it is a very good review. The critic calls his film a “masterwork” but Malcolm is infuriated by her ignorance of the technical aspects of cinema, that she calls a dolly shot a “Steadicam” and clearly has no idea about lenses.
He is also incensed by her deployment of differing comments on sexual and racial politics. She praises his debunking of the “white saviour” myth – though Malcolm is certain that if he was white she would be accusing the same scene of endorsing this myth – and turns the tables on him as a man by accusing him of revelling in and sexualising a woman’s trauma. Malcolm is almost delirious with indignation at the idea that her praise for him entitles her to this supercilious identity-politics point-scoring. This scene is amusing, uncomfortable and educational for those of us in the white film-critic community, made only more intriguing by being clearly such a heartfelt personal moment from Levinson, part of the white writer-director community (and son of the renowned Barry Levinson, who is thanked in the closing credits).
Malcolm and Marie argue about authenticity, and how this supposedly great virtue is demanded, or paraded, by those who do not have real knowledge or expertise, but still think their fuzzy and “real” emotions are what count. It is a shrewd point, and whether or not the film review scene is the most authentic thing about the film, it is part of a smart, fiercely performed movie.
• Malcolm & Marie is released on Netflix on 5 February.