A hundred minutes of monologues, tirades and sometimes testy exchanges filmed in black and white, “Malcolm & Marie” adds up to a tepid two hander, a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” without the writing to come off.
The dialogue and direction virtually never shakes its theatricality, the feeling that we’re hearing and watching a play. Writer-director Sam Levinson has John David Washington and Zendaya bark out lists — of credentials, backstory, film theory, past lovers, failings and grievances. They fight over the lists. And it’s exhausting.
Washington plays a filmmaker who has finally made a movie critics and the public might embrace. But Malcom’s celebration with his girlfriend of five years, an energetic James Brown sing-along and good Scotch, ridiculing white critics who finally are making the “Spike Lee and John Singleton and Barry Jenkins” comparisons (racially confining) and white liberals guilted into seeing “political” African American cinema, is smothered by Marie’s chilly response as she makes him mac and cheese.
He forgot to thank her in his speech at the premiere.
“You’ve never gotten a good review in your life,” she drops. “Mediocre” pops up when he stops ranting about about “What’s wrong?” And no, he will not admit that his screenplay was stolen from her real life addictions and recovery.
He’s self-absorbed — as creative folks inevitably are. And he multi-tasks, wolfing down her mac and cheese and opening his counter-arguments to her “It’s not until you’re about to lose someone that you start to pay attention.”
“Malcolm & Marie” comes from writer-director Sam Levinson, of “Assassination Nation,” and TV’s “Euphoria,” which stars Zendaya, and wears its intentions in every speech, every pretentious black and white frame.
Washington is already making it in Hollywood, thanks to “BlackKlansman” and being Denzel’s kid. But here’s another big screen chance for singer/actress Disney alumnus Zendaya to step out of “high school” (even the HBO drama series “Euphoria” is a sort of senior year experience) and into adult roles.
That it does. She’s getting most of the buzz from this. Is she great in it? She’s fine, but Oscar nomination fine? Washington goes so far over the top that she’s subtle by comparison. There’s no affectation to the performance. Well, this looks like her first drag off a cigarette. There’s not a lot of fire and spark, just blase dismissals of her man, her man’s “neediness” and tiny glimpses of her damaged past.
Malcolm’s profane, breathless tirade as he reads his first review allows her to patiently absorb, in ways that she must have absorbed “the misunderstood artist” rants for years. But Zendaya’s big emotional moments tend toward bloodless. Raising her thin, girlish voice doesn’t add presence or years. There is an awful imbalance in screen heft here thanks to how Washington pitches his performance — loud, overwhelming bellows and barks. This isn’t a great part, and she isn’t not be the best choice to make it one.
The ebb and flow of their real-time bickering and making-up feels script-dictated and inorganic.
Levinson’s script fills the soundtrack by emptying his memory banks of every film school conversation about “the male gaze,” dolly shots vs Steadicam, “The King’s Speech” and the generation of Jewish creatives who made “Gone with the Wind” and lionized “that Nazi-loving Lindbergh.” He turns his hero into the very forest-for-the-trees “educated” analyzer that he professes to despise. Maybe he can’t help himself, being born into the business (his dad directed “Rain Man”).
All this cinema-talk analysis is tedious, making the movie Malcolm made sound tedious, too.
And all this theatricality in the writing, blocking and acting always leads to a film that keeps the viewer at arm’s length. No amount of Washington shouting or Zendaya overwhelmed in his tsunami of speechifying changes that.
MPA Rating: R for pervasive language and sexual content
Cast: Zendaya, John David Washington
Credits: Scripted and directed by Sam Levinson. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:46