What with its early-February Netflix release, Malcolm & Marieis the kind of film that, in a busier, less-COVID-y time, may not have attracted any attention as people who make it their business to know about movies are busier with other things — CGI hedgehogs, Liam Neeson vehicles or horror movies, for instance.

But these are no normal times, and with nothing else to complain about, this little film gets the attention of the masses — even drawing some Film Twitter blowback for having a distinct age gap between stars Zendaya (24 at the time of filming), and John David Washington (36).

And attack the film critics have, with the kind of zest usually associated with Eli Roth or Brett Ratner. Malcolm & Marie is certainly better than anything those two have made, the kind of film whose real message gets lost in the (purposeful) pretentiousness of its characters.

Malcolm (Washington) is a director coming home with his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), after a triumphant screening of his latest film, a story about a young woman struggling with addiction that may or may not have direct parallels to Marie’s life.

When we meet them, Malcolm is both soaking in the accolades he’s receiving and at the same time criticizing critics for their positive response to his work. When they point out he’s the next Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins, he wonders why they only compare him to Black directors, a valid point until he adds in William Wyler (whose films likely have little to compare to Malcolm’s). He drones on about why they point out race, asking why he can’t just create a commercial film.

Marie was once an aspiring actor herself but hasn’t yet achieved the kind of success that might warrant, say, a starring role in a hot young director’s breakout film. Piling on that is the fact that Malcolm neglected to mention (that is, thank) Marie during his speech, and that oversight is sticking in her craw.

This setup sparks a series of back-and-forths between the couple, arguments that lead to cross, hurtful words to each other, followed by a passionate, brief makeup that then soon devolves into more fighting, more hurt and more making up.

It’s a relationship of grand toxicity, one that seems doomed to failure or at least an eternity of unhappiness between two people who both love each other but cannot stand to hear the other’s voice.

Indeed, the arguments are exhausting and the makeups almost terrifyingly swift and predictably brief. At one point, the two are on the verge of having sex, but Malcolm has to use the restroom. At this moment he is stuck in a coital Catch-22, knowing that if he stops, the deed will not be completed. But he has no choice but to stop, and sure enough, by the time he comes back, so does the argument.

The fights are verbally vicious and build in intensity, building from “I don’t want to talk about it” to a full-on, this-relationship-is-over-anyway kind of cruelty. When Malcolm quickly dubs Marie “crazy,” it feels like a typical tactic that gaslighting men say to silence a lady when she has flummoxed them. That is, until Marie’s addiction and mental health issues become part of the discussion.

When Marie throws around words like “abuse” early on, it feels similarly hyperbolic until you see the complete lack of compunction Malcolm shows in insulting her. He continues to pile onto her as he rages about how concerned he is for her mental well-being while casually eating the macaroni and cheese she just finished preparing for them both, then bluntly invokes how he supported her in a you-should-feel-lucky-it-was-me kind of careless tone as he recounts the sacrifices he’s made for her.

Malcolm and Marie are both convinced they have the other pegged for all their faults. But in the grand tradition of smart but emotionally immature people everywhere, they neglect to deal with their own shit while they lob insults at each other. These arguments are at times compelling, in the way it is to see two people bark at each other, each daring the other to go all the way with their insults. They know the game they’re playing because they’re playing it, too.

And yes, when they embrace between fights, we sense they’re apologizing as much for themselves as they are the other person.

Malcolm & Marieisn’t always fun to watch. Right around the time Malcolm tells Marie that she’s “exhausting,” the audience can say the exact same thing about them both. And indeed if they’ve each chosen each other while holding on to the contempt they display on this night, they have plenty of work to do on themselves before they are able to cast stones at each other.

Director Sam Levinson takes a simple approach, shooting in black and white as an affectation of its own, as much a metaphor for their own immaturity as it is a stylistic choice made for more artistic reasons.

The early segments, however, are a lot of fun, particularly as Malcolm kvetches over his film being treated as a racial treatise rather than a commercial film. When he grouses that the masses would demand a LEGO movie have elements of racial disparity, too, if he made it, he both has a point and (as Marie mentions) sounds like an asshole looking for a reason to complain.

It all adds up to a frequently entertaining and compartmentalized but still worthwhile look at people fighting each other with deep intelligence but emotional shallowness. The acting is showy but strong. The fighting is exhausting but rarely cathartic, and we know the resolutions are always temporary. But it’s making a statement about how romantic relationships can go bad, how two people can become sick of someone else’s neuroses because it distracts them from dealing with their own.

And that’s the point.