Malcolm & Marie and The Greatest Showman have two things in common. The first is Zendaya. The second thing is the unfortunate mindset that getting out ahead of criticism renders one immune to it. In The Greatest Showman, this manifests as having Paul Sparks play a grumpy critic who seems to exist solely to try to discount any real-life critics who would voice any complaints about the movie. Toward the end of the film, he begrudgingly grumbles of the show, “Another critic might have even called it ‘a celebration of humanity.’ ” But to call your own film a celebration of humanity in an attempt to ward people away from saying anything negative about it only emphasizes the movie’s flaws. That part of the musical, drawn out to feature length, is Malcolm & Marie.
Sam Levinson’s latest feature stars John David Washington and Zendaya as the film’s two title characters, a filmmaker and his girlfriend who have just returned home after the premiere of the former’s new movie. The film’s main conflict exists within their volatile relationship: Malcolm left Marie out of his speech at the premiere, and when she points this out, so begins a long night of interrogating why they’re together. However, there’s one other specter looming over the film: that of critical reception. There are only two actors in the film, but “the white woman from the L.A. Times” might as well be a third character, as she’s mentioned so often, and granted such significance as the avatar of all movie critics, that, despite being invisible, she takes up a lot of space in the movie’s single-location setting, at the couple’s Frank Lloyd Wright–esque California home.
Levinson, who also wrote the script, doesn’t shy away from pointing out that film criticism, like nearly every other field, is still dominated by white voices and suffers from a tendency to treat any nonwhite artists in a simplistic, monolithic way. Malcolm complains that the L.A. Times critic only compared him to other Black directors and balked when he asked if his work wasn’t reminiscent of that of William Wyler, instead. Later, he’s stunned to find the word jazzy used to describe his film, which depicts a drug addict and doesn’t really fit that kind of framing. But these points about how critics and audiences discuss art are drowned out by the waves of vitriol that surround them. Malcolm rants—while reading a positive review of his work—that critics don’t understand art (on both emotional and technical fronts, as he accuses a writer of only being able to name the film stock his movie was shot on because he mentioned it in his introduction) and are only interested in finding political angles for clicks. There’s an argument to be made that Malcolm is a bit of a blowhard—isn’t Malcolm & Marie inherently political for discussing the experiences of Black artists?—but the belittling of (and, ultimately, punching down at) anyone who would dare criticize Malcolm’s work, and Levinson’s, by proxy, goes on for too long. (And the current film critic of the L.A. Times is, incidentally, not a white woman, but Justin Chang.)
Lest my problems with Malcolm & Marie seem too personal, the chunks of the movie that aren’t centered on critics are shallow at best. The film is filled with capital-M Monologues that are in turn filled with deliveries of the word fuck that suggest that swearing is supposed to equate to edginess. Monologues aren’t necessarily a bad thing—and are a virtual inevitability here, given that there are only two characters—but in the final tally, all of the ten-dollar words add up to nothing. They’re stabs at self-importance, made all the stranger by the fact that these lines, written about race and the experiences of Black artists and delivered by Black actors, were written by a white man. Zendaya and Washington are nothing if not capable actors, but they’re at their best, in Malcolm & Marie, when Levinson’s dialogue isn’t present. When the camera focuses on Zendaya’s face as Washington tells her he loves her, her expression—the pinch in her brow, the way her lips press together—says leagues more than any of the lines she’s been given. Meanwhile, the $30 million film’s most compelling piece of drama comes from John David Washington’s body language as his character searches for his wallet.
Malcolm & Marie is certainly stylish, shot entirely in black and white, with its leads in fancy clothes for a good portion of its runtime, but its aesthetic virtues are suffocated by all of its screenwriter’s hot air. Not every film needs to have something to say, but the story that Levinson is telling is unbalanced, seesawing unevenly between trying to comment on how we perceive art and telling a love story in real time with two of Hollywood’s brightest stars. But star power can’t save a film that feels like an overwrought reaction to one bad review. Hopefully Levinson responds better to this one.