“There’s something carefully self-aware about the movie’s excess that keeps it from losing the thread.”
by Ken Bakely
The humor of Joseph Kahn’s Bodied is far-flung and almost overbearingly acidic, but there’s something carefully self-aware about the movie’s excess that keeps it from losing the thread. Exploring the competitive world of rap battles juxtaposed against the equally verbose and performative trends of social media-based activism within certain strands of left-wing politics, Kahn lays all his stylistic cards on the table from the start in approaching this material. Like his subject matter, his aesthetics veer towards maximalism. Words fly across the screen in bold typeface, cartoonish sound effects underline even relatively minor actions, and his camera often favors fast zooms or faster cuts. And yet, much like in his equally eccentric horror-comedy Detention, Kahn succeeds in creating a manic world to house the chaos. It’s a universe that seems like an exaggerated version of ours in the scenarios it endures, but is all too recognizable in how its humans think and function.
To be sure, Kahn establishes these characters as near-caricaturish from the get-go. Bodied’s main character, aspiring rapper Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy), is a nebbish white grad student at Berkeley researching a thesis on the history of racial slurs used by black battle rappers. His girlfriend, Maya (Rory Uphold), decries the lyrics of rap battles as cesspools of misogyny and internalized racism. She’s frustrated with Adam’s obsession with the pastime, and is much more comfortable with the verbal sparring of her friends’ dinner parties, where we see them create a kind of unintentional parlor game over who can call out whose sociocultural opinions as the most problematic. The rifts and crossovers don’t stop here, of course. Adam’s journey leads him to become a rising star in the local rap battle scene himself, awkwardly befriending revered rapper Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) and honing his insults to increasingly heady levels, driving further divides between the milquetoast academic analysis of his initial focus and the precisely crafted brutality of his acclaimed rhymes.
From there, Adam’s un-PC hobby becomes the subject of irate protests from his Berkeley cohorts, all while he feels the pressure of his rising status within the rap battle world. On a surface level, Kahn uses this dynamic to further his portrayal of the seeming incompatibility between complete artistic expression and the forces which push back against unbridled streams-of-consciousness. But there’s so much more going on in Bodied than a struggle over the definition of free speech. The film never pretends that Adam understands either of the groups he tries to fit in with. At times, the script treats him as a broadly pathetic figure, reeling from rejection in one environment by desperately trying to re-enter the other. The consequence of our protagonist’s unclear delineations between studying a subculture and thrusting himself into it is that he ends up with a net-zero understanding of anything at all. Worthy’s performance focuses on the comic implications of his character’s indecisiveness, spitting offensive raps with stunning aplomb and nervously trying to argue with others that each insult is part of a sensitive cultural outreach.
It plays into the movie’s overarching themes of what it means to play with complex social concepts as a performative tool. Adam obsesses over the kind of discourse he can get away with in the name of winning a battle. His first win comes from spouting a blustery string of Asian stereotypes in a matchup against a Korean-American opponent (Dumbfoundead). Afterward, it’s both the abstract approval of the crowd and the later compliments of the other rapper over some of his individual lyrics that fuels Adam’s feeling of having autonomy to explore however, wherever. It’s the main character’s own perpetual state of confusion over his placement that fuels Bodied’s conflict far more directly than criticism the character receives from his academic peers over the content of his words.
Aside from delightfully absurd dialogue and the electric rap battles themselves, the most brilliant aspect of Alex Larsen’s script is that it doesn’t have to resolve the existential question of how groups view the cultural works of other groups and what it means to engage with them or not. Because Adam is a character whose very nature is the byproduct of that question, the conflict he experiences turns those questions right back at him in a frenetic feedback loop. He’s completely naive to it all. And because there are so many scenes in which he operates at an omnidirectional full-blast as a reflex for acceptance – only for it to backfire – Bodied winds up being as much a satire of the convoluted debate over what defines free expression as it is a hilariously unforgiving look at the misadventures of a character who is so fixated with performing that he can no longer tell when he isn’t.