Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
If Eminem got a PhD in English without sacrificing his hip-hop talent, he might have turned out something like Adam (Calum Worthy), the scrawny white hero of Joseph Kahn’s “Bodied.” Kahn’s long-awaited follow-up to his snarky teen slasher comedy “Detention” is a hyper-stylized rap satire that plays out like Scott Pilgrim stumbling into “8 Mile” and stealing the spotlight. Set in an assaultive world of underground rap battles in which Adam finds himself unexpectedly talented, “Bodied” delivers the provocative goods at an alarming rate, and boasts Eminem as an executive producer as if to embolden its point.
With Adam learning to embrace racist and misogynist one-liners in his rise to hip-hop stardom, the movie might seem too crude for its own good, but “Bodied” — directed by an Asian American and largely starring people of color — has been designed to interrogate the very reaction provoked by its existence. It may be overlong and uneven, but it’s still the most subversive movie about hip hop ever made, one of the most exciting modern portraits of race relations period, and a daring assault on white liberal privilege that checks it from the inside out.
The movie is a natural extension of Kahn’s career on multiple fronts. For nearly 20 years, he has made a career out of acclaimed music videos for pop stars ranging from Eminem to Katy Perry, and his speedy visual techniques assume an MTV-ready mainstream vernacular even as he deconstructs it. The same canny talent came into play with “Detention,” a rapid-fire statement on the inanity of vanilla teen horror movies that threw everything but the kitchen sink into its fantastical plot even as it grounded the story in genuine character development. So it goes with “Bodied”: Written by Toronto-based rapper Kid Twist (neé Alex Larsen), it pivots between zany caricatures outwardly designed to indict certain extremes without negating the substance of its narrative.
“Bodied” makes that tricky balance clear in its opening, when Adam takes his sensitive vegan girlfriend Maya to an Oakland rap battle where the hard-edged insults keep coming. Kahn’s balletic camera veers from the center of a vulgar showdown to the outskirts of the rowdy crowd, where Adam attempts to translate every speedy one-liner to his mortified partner. (“It’s probably safe to assume that everything is a gun metaphor.”) Adam’s real motive is to connect with rap-battle celebrity Behn Grim (Jackie Long) to pummel him with academic questions; in a hilarious meta setup for the movie’s own social commentary, the white kid’s a literature student writing his dissertation on “the poetic functions of the n-word in battle rap.”
But in the parking lot after the battle, he finds himself challenged to a rap battle of his own, and delivers better than his own expectations. Suddenly — and, it must be said, very unrealistically — Adam faces the same challenges related to cultural insensitivity he has scrutinized from the outside, and he gains confidence in his rap skills even as his progressive bubble rejects him.
Kahn’s visually restless approach provides a delightful platform for exploring Adam’s conundrum. Sitting with his white friends at dinner, he watches them sip red wine while complaining about the racism associated with the form, and imagines rap insults as the rhymes appear onscreen. (“Your hipster glasses look like a real-life Instagram filter.”) Before long, he’s accusing his girlfriend of colonialist assumptions and reformulating his priorities around a new clique of hip-hop masters, including mentor Behn Grym, salty Korean-American Dumbfoundead, and Devine Wright (Shoniqua Shandai), the sole woman of the group.
This motley crew of cartoonish figures would make “Bodied” funny enough, but the movie’s real critical gaze takes form once Adam enters the ring and discovers that his raps fall like rocks until he embraces racial epithets. “Just ‘cuz you look like Kim Jong-il doesn’t make you ill, son,” he shouts to Dumbfoundead’s face, as his opponent nods in appreciation. (“At least you knew I was Korean,” Dumbfounded says later on. “That’s culturally sensitive by battle-rap standards!”)
“Bodied” is pure zany fun disguised as a pure provocation, and sometimes vice versa, mainly because any attempt to characterize its narrative as problematic proves its point. As each verbal sparring session makes clear, hip hop provides a release for a generation repressed by the limitations of a tight-lipped society. It’s therapy and cultural commentary under the guise of verbal diarrhea. The personas created by the form lead to larger-than-life characterizations anyway, so Kahn has no trouble beefing up the drama with a villain, Megaton — a violent, angry rapper who resorts to striking his opponents when words don’t do the trick.
Megaton provides Adam with a menacing foe for the final act, but the soul of the movie stems from his Behn Grim, whose tough-guy poses belie the domestic realities of his everyday life. This revelation arrives with brilliant clarity, illustrating just how much the rap serves as battle armor for psychological wounds.
“Bodied” is such an unwieldy gamble that it eventually overextends its ambitious strategy, running too long at two hours and pushing its rap battles to the point of tedium. But it bristles with big ideas and an eagerness to spark debate about political correctness; despite the cynical edge, there’s a sincerity to Kahn’s evident desire to interrogate his themes. “Bodied” doesn’t come to any hard conclusions, but suggests that the ultimate cathartic power of rap comes from its ability to be an equal-opportunity offender.
Neon will release “Bodied” in theaters on Friday, November 2.