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'Malcolm & Marie' Is Lost, Just Like Its Central Couple

These are a few things that can be, and often are, true: Black artists are lavished with praise for their societal value while the artistry of their technique and craftwork are overlooked. White critics fall back on comparing Black artists to one another even if the work, style or visions among them are entirely disparate. Artists borrow from the lives of those they know intimately and risk making a mess of their relationships. Zendaya and John David Washington are talented performers and ridiculously good-looking human beings. (OK, this last one is consistently true.)

The mere fact that these things might be true at any given moment doesn't make them inherently compelling on their own. Stating – or shouting – them aloud without any further interrogation or curiosity just means someone recognized A Thing and then recited the existence of The Thing, not necessarily that they actually understand it or grasp the weight of its meaning.

Which is how one winds up with something like Malcolm & Marie, Sam Levinson's pandemic baby conceived, written and shot during the early months of Covid-19 lockdown. It's a very talk-y movie that takes aim at film criticism and its relationship to Black art in the most muddled and perplexing of ways: through the convoluted dialogue of a white director (who also happens to be the son of another famous director), filtered through two black characters played by a former child star-turned-Emmy-winning A-lister and an on-the-rise leading man (who also happens to be the son of one of Hollywood's greatest movie stars). It's also a sudsy, exhausting drama about a couple that probably shouldn't be together, and is only just now admitting the quiet part aloud.

The action goes down on a single night, set inside one of those sleek and spacious modern-style homes with floor-to-ceiling windows that are shorthand for a particular brand of wealth – no need to draw the blinds; the better for outsiders to marvel at the luxury, my dears. Malcolm (played to the hilt by Washington) is a cocky writer-director with a film that could catapult his career to new heights; Marie (Zendaya) is his morose girlfriend who is upset he forgot to thank her in his speech at the movie's premiere hours earlier. Their diverging experiences of the evening – him on a self-absorbed high from the positive reception, her feeling understandably hurt and used – come to a head as the pair fuss and cuss in between long, exasperated puffs of cigarette smoke.

A "white girl from the L.A. Times" looms large over Malcolm & Marie. She's a film critic never seen on screen, yet she occupies the headspace of Malcolm so unrelentingly and with such visceral contempt one might begin to wonder if at any given moment she'll be conjured up out of thin air as a demon ominously wielding a keyboard. There are many minutes and multiple rants dedicated to excoriating this "white girl," and criticism in general. Just five minutes in, Malcolm recounts how at the premiere she compared him to Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Barry Jenkins; he's offended she didn't namedrop someone like, say, William Wyler. "You could tell that because I'm Black, as the director, and the woman is a Black lead who stars in the film, she's already trying to frame it through a political lens," he scoffs.

There is much more where that comes from, of florid, bombastic, Tom Cruise-jumping-on-the-couch energy directed at the burden of being a Black filmmaker who wants to make art without politics and break free of being pigeonholed by his Blackness. Marie's got her own art-related gripes, feeling as though Malcolm has committed a "spiritual theft" of her past traumas in order to make the movie, without her input or involvement.

Superficially, both perspectives are believable.

But again: Things can be factual, without ringing emotionally true in a dramatic sense. In The Forty-Year-Old Version, a recent film that likewise unpacks expectations of Black art (and is also shot in vivid black-and-white), Radha Blank's rom-com about a woman stuck in a creative and personal rut lives and breathes from that space of emotional truth. Undoubtedly it arrives there in part because it's heavily inspired by Blank's own experience as a playwright and poet who has striven not to compromise her vision in order to appease white critics and creatives. Yet there's also a careful attention to detail and an understanding of how to build tension and frame conversations in ways that serve the story and the characters, of how her agent or that producer or her high school students would actually feel and respond in any given scene. Blank clearly knows her creation inside and out.

Malcolm & Marie lacks this clear-eyed perspective. Very little about the dialogue Washington and Zendaya must interpret here translates as anything approaching realism, and they are ill-served by a hammy script that thinks it's cleverer than it is; "Do you know how disturbing it is that you can compartmentalize to such a degree that you can abuse me while eating mac and cheese?" is an actual sentence Zendaya clunks her way through, though she communicates her character's frustration admirably.

Ultimately, Malcolm and Marie are reduced to thinly-sketched outlines ticking off a checklist of flaws, traumas and hashtags. This same problem has plagued Levinson's other recent projects, the hit series Euphoria (for which Zendaya won a hard-earned Emmy) and the 2018 feature Assassination Nation, both doom-and-gloom narratives about terribly troubled teens and the adults who don't understand them. Each of these stories exudes a vapid sort of timeliness and urgency addressing hot-button issues of the day, screaming at the audience through provocation and "edginess" without saying much at all.

In movies like Malcolm & Marie where a couple falls apart right in front of our eyes, it's less about whether or not they reach a resolution than about what is revealed through the expression of their grievances along the way. How does their needling reflect their dynamic and communication of love or disdain for one another? As the layers are pulled back on Malcolm and Marie's relationship, it becomes obvious that there are, in fact, no layers. Everything, from the deliberately meta musical cues to that resentful back-and-forth over boxed mac and cheese, is the text being the text.

And that's it. All that's left are two characters rendered awkwardly as vessels for a director's odd hang-ups about his own identity and craft.

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Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.