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‘Malcolm & Marie’: Two smart, beautiful people have an argument for the ages

A rich script for this movie about a fraying relationship gives John David Washington and Zendaya multiple opportunities to showcase their considerable talents.

John David Washington and Zendaya play a couple returning from his movie’s premiere in “Malcolm & Marie.”
John David Washington and Zendaya play a couple returning from his movie’s premiere in “Malcolm & Marie.”
Netflix

It’s nearly impossible not to compare the electric and intense exploding-relationship movie “Malcolm & Marie” to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and certain films of John Cassavetes.

But we don’t have to go that far back for a frame of reference. All you have to do is watch the climactic, scorched-Earth, raging argument scene in 2019’s “Marriage Story,” then imagine that sequence expanded into a feature-length film.

That’s the deeply talented writer-director Sam Levinson’s “Malcolm & Marie” in a capsule. One hundred and six minutes of two smart, passionate, volatile, funny, infuriating and, oh, yes, beautiful people baring their hearts, souls and fangs to one another with such raw ferocity they’ll never forget a single moment of this night, whether they wind up growing old together or go their separate ways come dawn, each hoping and praying they’ll never see the other again.

The knives are out all night long, at one point literally.

Filmed in shimmering tones of black and white in a glass-walled, angular, isolated house in Carmel, California, “Malcolm & Marie” plays out over the course of one long night, as John David Washington’s Malcolm and Zendaya’s Marie return from the sensationally successful premiere of Malcolm's latest directorial effort, with Malcolm, in his jacket and shirt and tie, thumping his chest with pride and bounding about the house with ego-fueled adrenaline as he recaps the evening, while Marie, in her jaw-dropping cutout dress, whips up some late-night mac and cheese.

With cinematographer Marcell Rév’s camera darting about the house and capturing the two leads in mesmerizing closeups and exquisitely framed long shots so beautiful you could screenshot virtually any moment and hang it on the wall, we get down to business — all kinds of business. Discussions of show business, Malcolm patting himself on the back for taking care of business, Marie all business as she allows Malcolm his triumphant monologue before acknowledging that, yes, something is bothering her. It’s that Malcolm thanked everyone from his leading lady (that’ll come up again) to the crew to his elementary school teachers but neglected to single out Marie even though Malcolm’s movie is about a 20-year-old drug addict and her fight to survive and is essentially based on Marie’s experiences. (Not to mention that Marie supported Malcolm every step of the way, helped him reshape the script and even auditioned for but did not get the lead.)

With that, the gloves are off, and some of the clothes come off, and Marie wants to know where does Malcolm get off with his narcissistic, self-indulgent, room-filling ego. And Malcolm eviscerates Marie with his cold-blooded criticisms, claiming she’s always playing the victim card or wrongly assuming the movie is all about her when the lead character is actually an amalgam of the many, many women Malcolm has known before he came into Marie’s life and basically rescued her.

It’s like we’ve been through the first three rounds of “Rocky,” and we’re now realizing the fight has just begun.

Levinson’s dense and richly layered, albeit sometimes overly theatrical, script affords Washington and Zendaya multiple opportunities to showcase their considerable talents and for the discourse to expand beyond the fraying relationship. Even as Malcolm basks in the glow of the kudos he received all night, he notes how he was compared to Spike Lee and John Singleton — but why not, say, William Wyler?

There’s also a darkly hilarious sequence in which Malcolm scrambles about the house in search of his wallet so he can get behind the paywall of the L.A. Times and read a just-posted review from a white, female critic — and even though she refers to Malcolm’s film as a “genuine masterwork,” he roars with indignation at her condescending tone and flies into a raging and wide-ranging monologue, while Marie sits silent, her face curling into a small smile.

It’s one of many times in this film when one actor has the platform and the spotlight and the pages of dialogue, but the other is just as screen-commanding with subtle and not-so-subtle reactions.

Writer-director Levinson filmed “Malcolm & Marie” under strict COVID protocols after production on his HBO series “Euphoria” was shut down due to the virus.

On the surface, Zendaya’s Marie could be a version of her “Euphoria” lead character Rue Bennett a half dozen years down the road. But Zendaya is such a blazing talent that she creates a wholly original character in Marie. We’d watch an entire movie about Marie’s life before this one night and another movie about what happens to her down the road.

Washington continues to build on an already impressive career with his powerful work as the intense and infuriating and passionate Malcolm.

Malcolm and Marie deserve one another. And if one of them said that, the other would immediately launch a dissection: What do you mean by that, exactly?

Exactly.

NOTE: The following trailer contains explicit language.