There’s a great deal of manipulation at play — both between the characters on the screen and filmmaker and audience — in Sam Levinson’s “Malcolm and Marie,” an engaging and at-times-hard-to-watch two-hander in which a troubled couple emotionally eviscerate one another over the course of a very long night.
Though uncomfortable to witness, there’s an energy that makes it hard to look away ... until you can’t take it anymore.
Credit the no-holds-barred performances by the two leads and vibrant direction from Levinson for hooking and keeping us hooked throughout, despite the fact that some of what happens will likely cut too close to the bone for anyone who’s been in a relationship, healthy or not.
To be fair, they’re also to blame for wearing the audience down to the point where you can’t wait to leave the company of these two damaged souls.
For filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington), the night begins as one of triumph. He’s flying high after being feted at the successful premiere of his latest movie when he returns home with his partner, Marie (Zendaya), dancing about their Malibu residence, a drink in his hand, on cloud nine.
However, his bubble soon bursts when he notices Marie is aloof and asks her what’s bothering her. While she says that his having forgotten to thank her for her contributions to his film while being honored is what’s stuck in her craw, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Feelings of animosity, long-held hurts and confessions all come to the fore as the couple rip each other apart, reconcile and repeat the cycle again and again during a roller-coaster night that’s initially invigorating but ultimately exhausting.
Washington and Zendaya bring their A-game, each proving to be a force to be reckoned with. While the former has shown glimmers of the power he displays here, his co-star far exceeds any previous expectations you may have of her.
Whether impassioned, vulnerable or wily, Zendaya is passionate, fleshing out this troubled woman who is far smarter than she appears but also perhaps broken beyond repair.
In some ways, Washington has the harder task, his character being far less appealing and a bit more obvious. That he’s able to bring some nuance is a tribute to his dedication.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle with projects such as this is being able to maintain a sense of realism throughout.
Each performer has monologues that put them in the spotlight, and the challenge is to make these moments appear natural, not come off as scenes tailored to score awards.
Initially, Washington, Zendaya and Levinson are able to avoid this trap, but as the film goes on and the energy rises, each performer is guilty of going a bit too far in showing us what great actors they are, rather than concentrating on their characters.
In the end, “Malcolm and Marie” reveals itself to be a theatrical exercise rather than a film we can immerse ourselves in.
Levinson takes a bait-and-switch approach in which the viewer may find themselves initially dazzled by the energy on display only to ultimately be exhausted by the grand actorly moments that play out.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I prefer to be entertained when I watch a movie, not bludgeoned.
For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter @ckoplinski. His email is email@example.com.