There's something so arty and insular about Malcolm & Marie that I found it nearly impossible to forget that I was watching a movie.
Director Sam Levinson has made a two-hander about a battling couple played by John David Washington and Zendaya.
The movie may remind you of other battling couples, notably Edward Albee's George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a movie that also was shot in black-and-white.
I'll get to the couple -- a filmmaker and his muse -- in a moment.
First, though, a word about architecture. If a movie is to take place almost entirely within one house, the house better be interesting and evocative. Levinson has chosen the Caterpillar House in Carmel, Ca.
Set mostly at night, we're keenly aware of the vast glass walls of the living room, the sense of West Coast openness and the self-conscious modernity of a house that seems as much a statement as a home.
Of course, I digress. So let me say that inside the house we find an uneven mixture of battling, rants and emotional exposure -- or, just another day in the life of a young couple.
Washington plays Malcolm, a filmmaker who's returning to a home that has been provided by his production company. His new film has just had its premiere.
Zendaya's Marie is the lover and partner Malcolm forgot to acknowledge in his thank-you speech after the movie, a bit of neglect sets off the fireworks.
A former drug addict, Marie also believes that Malcolm appropriated events from her life without bothering either to credit her or cast her in his movie.
Initially, Malcolm rides an adrenalin-fueled wave of triumph as he dances through the living room. It seems as if his movie will give him career-making credibility. He's like a person who has learned he's just won the lottery -- only, in this case, his triumph has been earned.
While Malcolm enthuses about himself or rants on other matters, Marie makes a bowl of mac and cheese -- from a box no-less. If this is an act of ego deflation, what to make of the fact that Malcolm eats it?
Marie slowly pulls the rug out from under the joyous Malcolm and, in the process, raises questions about creativity, ethics, and self-image.
Even when they're interesting or amusing, battling couples can get on your nerves. If you'd have been in the presence of Malcolm and Marie during their long evening of ire, it wouldn't take long before you began looking for the exits.
This is not to fault the acting. Zendaya punches well in the emotional clinches. Washington finds a groove, at one point delivering a rapid-fire monologue about being pigeon-holed as a black filmmaker by a critic. Ironically, the same critic also called his film a "master work."
The lengthy soliloquy is impressive if only for Washington's ability to sustain the energy and powers of elocution required to deliver it.
Levinson inches the characters toward sexual intimacy and then retreats; he primes us for deep revelation but none seems to be forthcoming. Sometimes rant substitutes for dialogue.
The total effect is oddly unsettling. By the time the movie ended, I felt as I'd been watching a skillful simulation of an art movie rather than the real thing.
Put another way, Malcolm & Marie requires too much effort for too little reward.