About 20 minutes into Malcolm & Marie—the new Netflix drama that began streaming today—Zendaya turns to John David Washington and says, “Don’t believe the hype, Malcolm, and don’t push away the people who ground you.” She kisses him gently, and continues, “You’re gonna start making fake movies, about fake people with fake emotions. Next thing you know, you’ll be on your press tour for the next LEGO movies.”
It’s here that I realized Malcolm & Marie wasn’t really a romance about an egotistical film director named Malcolm (Washington) and his long-suffering girlfriend Marie (Zendaya). Is that line something a girlfriend with her own thoughts and feelings and worries and dreams—even one who was immersed in the film industry as an actor—would say? No! It’s something an artist would say to himself, maybe written in his Google Doc of journal entries at the end of the day. And that’s what Malcolm & Marie really is: 102 minutes of writer/director Sam Levinson having a conversation with himself.
The best comparison I can think of is “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party,” the brilliant recurring Saturday Night Live character played by Cecily Strong. The bit almost always lands, because Strong is great at her job, but also because we all know that feeling—some girl, who’s not very smart, has had too much to drink and has decided she’s an expert on world hunger or terrorism. And somehow, you’re the poor sap who got stuck talking to her at a party.
Levinson occupies a new space in that same category: The Guy You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With At a Party. You know the one. It’s the floppy-haired dude who ate an edible, drank three IPAs, and has targeted you as his sounding board for half-baked philosophical ideas. He’s got you cornered, and you’re stuck half-listening, fake smile on your face as you nod along, keeping an eye on your friends across the room, who seem to be having a much better time than you.
Maybe if you’ve had an edible too, you’ll find what this guy has to say mildly interesting. Maybe you’ll even find it entertaining. Indeed, parts of Malcolm & Marie are fun to watch, thanks to Washington and Zendaya’s performances. Washington is all manic energy waiting to explode, while Zendaya quietly simmers before calmly landing a devastating blow. Levinson has some interesting points to make about the parasitical nature of artistry. Marie is pissed at Malcolm for not thanking him in his speech at his buzzy film’s premiere—which is especially egregious when we learn that he based his protagonist on Marie’s struggle with drug addiction. How much of storytelling is talent, and how much is finding the right muse? What do writers owe to the people who inspire them? Surely at least a public “thank you,” right? It makes you think!
But Levinson loves the sound of his own voice too much. Marie isn’t a character in her own right—though Zendaya does an admirable job trying to get her there—she’s just another mouthpiece for Levinson’s conflicted inner monologue. She’s every bit as much “The Guy You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With” as Malcolm is, going on and on about filmmaking being the most capitalistic mainstream art-form.
Then Levinson lets his personal grudges get in the way of his larger thesis. Perhaps you’ve heard that many suspect Malcolm’s unhinged eight-minute rant about “the white bitch from the LA Times” is a direct response to a negative review of Levinson’s 2018 film, Assassination Nation. He confidently raves about issues on which he has zero expertise, like the struggle of being a Black filmmaker in a white-dominated field. It’s uncomfortable, unpleasant, and, eventually, just kinda boring. You start to wish he’d stop talking and leave you alone.
Thankfully, it will be easy for Netflix viewers to extract themselves once they tire of Levinson’s tirade—simply click on one of the other hundreds of titles Netflix has to offer. No need to fake a bathroom run and avoid him for the rest of the night. Thank god.