Come for John David Washington; stay for Zendaya.
As the first big movie entirely written/filmed/released during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as a splashy post-"Tenet" showcase for Washington, who is destined to be a very big star, the drama "Malcolm & Marie" is receiving lots of attention. But Marie, it turns out, is way more compelling than Malcolm.
Sam Levinson's script, written while waiting to reunite with Zendaya and the cast of his HBO series "Euphoria" for its second season, has Zendaya as the overqualified arm candy of a hotshot movie director played by Washington. As the black-and-white movie opens, they're returning from the premiere of his latest, which is about a 20-year-old recovering drug addict and which Marie believes is based on her life. To make matters worse, Malcolm failed to thank her in his speech at the premiere, and to make matters even worse than that, he made another major gaffe that "M & M" won't reveal until nearly the end.
The first half is mostly Malcolm, and that's a problem. It's early in 2021 to be proclaiming this, but it's hard to believe there will be a more annoying, entitled character than this self-involved blowhard. After a lengthy diatribe about critics, audiences and artistic principles ("Cinema doesn't need to have a message. It needs to have a heart") has us wondering why we should listen to this creep, expertly performed though he may be, it's hard not to agree with Marie's dry response: "That was a fight you had entirely with yourself."
Hovering over the movie is our suspicion that we could be viewing the last conversation this couple will ever have, especially since we know very little about them other than what these stormy 100 minutes tell us.
With only a few script clues, Washington and Zendaya achieve an intimacy and quicksilver communication that hint at a played-out relationship. That registers even more strongly when Marie takes over and it becomes clear that a yell-y drama that may seem to be about movies is really about a relationship in free fall.
Marie doesn't make much sense — why is such a sharp-witted woman content to play second fiddle to a guy who can't see past his own navel? — but Levinson knows what Zendaya is capable of based on her electrifying, Emmy Award-winning "Euphoria" work, and she delivers emotional fireworks.
Zendaya makes you care about Marie in the second half of the movie, but I'm still not sure you'll believe any of it. "Malcolm & Marie," which bears some resemblance to Lanford Wilson's play "Burn This," might work better as theater, where stagecraft could lure us into the metaphoric connection between art and life. Here, in real time, it sometimes feels like we're watching two fine actors whip through a series of showy audition scenes that don't really hang together.
One thing you will believe: When Malcolm finishes one rant and Zendaya drolly utters the line, "Stop it. You sound like an ass----," she speaks for all of us.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
Malcolm & Marie
⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: R for language.
Where: In theaters now; on Netflix Feb. 5.