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The film and theater director Mike Nichols once said, “Every scene is either a fight, seduction, or negotiation.” Sam Levinson probably had Nichols in mind when he conceived Malcolm & Marie, his black-and-white two-hander that recalls Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Closer. While Nichols adapted stage plays that are known for their complex characters and dialogue, in Malcom & Marie, Levinson opts for a strident litigation of past grievances. His miscalculation is the assumption we are as interested in them as he is.

Shot during the pandemic on black-and-white 35mm film, Levinson sets Malcolm & Marie around a lavish beachside mansion. Malcolm (John David Washington) and his model girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) return from a night of triumph: Malcolm is a film director who just had a big premiere, and everyone loved it. While Malcolm rides a high of adrenaline and booze, Marie makes him some mac and cheese, probably to stave off his hangover. They keep talking. Malcolm obsesses over every interaction, and Marie bitterly reminds Malcolm he forgot to thank her in his public remarks. Their semiserious barbs turn into full-blown insults, with the toxic couple trading one nasty monologue after another, all in an effort to “win” the night.  

Levinson films all this without much sense of momentum. There is a cyclical quality to the evening, with Malcolm and Marie embracing and spurning each other in equal measure. Malcolm & Marie is like watching a couple fight in public, not a climactic battle of the sexes. The dialogue only exacerbates this feeling because Levinson has no sense of rhythm or metaphor. Both lovers speak without subtext, not hiding their feelings, and they even tell us what they are going to say before they say it. When Malcolm warns he is about to say something particularly nasty, there is no shock when the nasty thing finally lands. This is a film that pads out its tension instead of escalating it.

The gorgeous setting and actors can’t hide Levinson’s shortcomings as a filmmaker. Many of his scenes are clumsily assembled and tell us little about the central relationship. There is a brief vignette where Marie leaves the house and Malcolm wanders around, screaming her name, only she matter-of-factly appears again. There’s no narrative reason for this to occur, except to highlight the gorgeous grounds on which the mansion happens to sit. Washington and Zendaya rarely occupy the same shot, robbing their arguments of tension. While both of these actors are good-looking and charismatic, here they seem like undeveloped facsimiles of real people. It’s a big ask for viewers to invest in the woes of those who have such privilege and success, and Levinson doesn’t earn our attention.

Malcolm & Marie is at its best when it criticizes its characters. Malcolm is a caricature of an arrogant film director, and sometimes Levinson is self-aware about it, like during a lengthy diatribe when Malcolm seethes over the recently-published review of his film: The critic loved the film, just not in a way he approves of, and he angrily litigates each clumsy turn of phrase. While all this happens, Marie lounges on the couch without much alarm about Malcolm’s temper, regarding him with a mix of weariness and amusement (clearly, this style of rant has happened before). Malcolm calls this critic “the White lady at the L.A. Times,” which suggests Levinson based this episode on Katie Walsh, a critic who wrote a negative review of Levinson’s last feature, Assassination Nation. But this meta-level analysis is ultimately a distraction, since the scene is skewering neurotic directors like Malcolm who would rather rage about being misunderstood than take the victory.

Still, if that’s all autobiographical, then there is a complication in the casting of Levinson’s leads. They are both Black, while Levinson is White, and the “film within a film” is about a young black woman that’s partially based on Marie. Race is a frequent topic for the pair, and while any filmmakers can create characters of any ethnicity, Levinson feels like he’s trying to get away with something every time Malcolm says “the White lady at the L.A. Times.” Perhaps he thinks a White director being this neurotic and abusive would come off as unsympathetic, or he feels Malcolm’s race negates the theme of affluent victimhood he explores ad nauseam and without sufficient self-awareness. Early in the film, Marie says, “Nothing productive is going to be said tonight.” That is the most honest thing either of them say. It would have been simpler if they had gone to bed, and Marie let Malcolm feel terrible in the morning. He would have earned it.

Malcolm & Marie is available to stream on Netflix on Feb. 5.