ST. LOUIS — A car quickly pulls up to a secluded yet beautifully modern home in the middle of nowhere. A couple-in a relationship carrying a fair amount of connective and decaying tissue-politely storms into the home, seemingly flowing across the stylish floor that looks like porcelain yet sings like marble.
Marie (Zendaya) goes to the bathroom on a one-way mission while Malcolm (John David Washington) moves to the bar, cueing up a little James Brown and allowing the music to flow through him like seasoning does on a steak. Thunderously confident yet annoyingly cunning, he pours a drink and looks for the stink from his critics.
A filmmaker's best and worst attributes colliding in one giant film that used the fall and rise of his girlfriend's personal trauma as audience bait, he has chips for both shoulders. Across the house, the girlfriend performs her own oil change, dancing with the introspection of a relationship that she sees heading fast downhill, and with one driver.
Is she jealous or just detached from his domineering masculinity? Does he even notice how artificial his brilliance looks upon inspection? Does their relationship still breathe, or did the love doctors shake their head long ago?
I'm talking about Sam Levinson's "Malcolm & Marie," an intoxicating yet insufferably honest film about the dichotomy between art and its subjects and critics. Netflix's latest original is a great-looking film that has bravado to burn yet slowly drives you nuts at the same time (Mank, Mank!) It starts fast, and then starts to preach and scream at you. Is he insecure overall, or just mad that critics "didn't get" his film? The levity is hard to love yet easy to admire here.
Washington and Zendaya, though, enliven Levinson's party quite a bit. This is the charismatic and convincing screen ownership that I have been waiting for from Washington. While he can't (yet) outrun his father's piercing eyes and commanding voice, this is the kind of role that makes me think of a young Marlon Brando matching wits with Washington DNA. What was sorely missing in Christopher Nolan's "Tenet" is very much alive here.
Zendaya, working with her "Euphoria" on HBO pal Levinson here, could simply stand and stare, and the camera would blink. Every time. What seems easy-to-understand becomes multi-faceted over the near-two-hour run time with Marie, a woman with too many layers for her husband to handle. Levinson's script is relentless and forces its way in, demanding answers that the audience isn't ready to give. But the actress knows her filmmaker's speed, and attaches to it seamlessly. One performance wouldn't work without the other. You need two to tango in this kind of movie setup, and these two performers hold the screen even when the itinerary is faulty.
I found more to admire in "Malcolm & Marie," a film that will (and should) infuriate you. But you can't deny the artistic intent on display here. Levinson, along with Zendaya and Washington (who were both producers as well), didn't give me a half-measured product here. There's complexity, anxiety, genuine romance, real life imperfections, and so much more on display. If the film didn't yell so much, it'd be a masterpiece.
This film had a very small crew and barebones-savvy production, and you can feel it as the running time progresses. The indie flag is waved heavily here and that element, along with the electric and patient performances, makes "Malcolm and Marie" a film worth pursuing. It won't haunt as much, but you will reflect during and at the end. What is film without the questions it asks of us?
Bottom Line: "Malcolm & Marie" flies high on the charisma and inescapable conviction of its leads, while casting a problematic spell on its viewers. The words fly faster than a bullet and carry years of meaning in Levinson's film, which could turn some off, but I was glued to the end. Netflix didn't hit a home run, but this is an easy double.