(CNN)Writer-director Sam Levinson spends a good deal of time in “Malcolm & Marie” complaining about critics, which feels like a boxer leading with his chin. Pairing Zendaya and John David Washington, the movie — quickly and stealthily shot during the pandemic — wins points for ingenuity, then loses them with its shrill tone and the uneven hairpin turns of its writing.
The two-person showcase casts Washington (the Malcolm half of the title) as a director, returning home from a premiere of his debut movie with his glamorous girlfriend, Zendaya’s Marie. While he alternately exults and rails against “the white girl” film critic at the L.A. Times, she’s sullen and angry, for reasons that will gradually (very gradually) be explained.
Levinson and Zendaya were already collaborating on the HBO series “Euphoria” when Covid-19 hit, and the idea of secretly shooting a movie in a remote house arose, as Deadline reported. Filmed in striking black and white, the mostly-housebound structure has the unavoidable texture of a stage play, even if the characters occasionally venture outside onto the rustic grounds.
Malcolm spends a lot of time talking about the nature of art and referencing great directors of the past, lamenting the impulse to squeeze movies into identifiable boxes. Yet the filmmaker and movie that most comes to mind goes unmentioned: Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” another black-and-white portrait of an angst-ridden auteur, and an earlier exercise in this sort of self-indulgence.
The characters fight bitterly — unleashing long monologues, the most impressively breathless being Malcolm’s rant about an early review — make up almost out of sheer exhaustion, then abruptly argue some more. Similarly, Marie can go from praising Malcolm’s work to ripping it apart at a moment’s notice.
It’s all very showy, beautifully shot, and ultimately irritating and headache inducing, largely because the script makes even the emotions and grievances that get vented unconvincing despite the strong performances, pouring out as they do in intermittent bursts.
“Malcolm & Marie” can be charitably viewed as an experiment — during a period that has invited a lot of trial and error — that’s more admirable for its ambition, production-wise, than its execution. Afforded the chance to make something potentially daring with Zendaya (fresh off her Emmy win) and the star of “Tenet” and “BlacKkKlansman,” why not try?
Couched that way “Malcolm & Marie” is arguably worth watching — at least, a few minutes worth of it — without really needing to see it cross the finish line.
“Nothing productive is going to be said tonight,” Marie says quietly when Malcolm starts to probe what’s bugging her after they get home.
Alas, when the shouting’s over, those turn out to be the truest words spoken.
“Malcolm & Marie” premieres Feb. 5 on Netflix. It’s rated R.