Joseph Kahn’s new satirical comedy, Bodied, is the “more of a comment than a question” movie about race, privilege, and verse of 2018. If Blindspotting had too much narrative cohesion and nuance for you, try Bodied, which riddles its audience with dialogue and ideas at such a rapid-fire pace that none of them ever make any direct or purposeful hits. The film follows the intersecting storylines of Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), a champion battle rapper, and Adam (Calum Worthy), a prim, white grad student writing his thesis on Behn’s “bars,” i.e., the combo of language and phrasing of rap-battle verses. As it turns out, Adam’s a quick study on the subject, and soon becomes a natural battle rapper himself. But this threatens his newfound friendship with Behn and his romantic relationship with vegan feminist Maya (Rory Uphold). Think All About Eve, but with men and free-styling.
Kahn, who began his career as a music video director, has never abandoned the slick, quick-cutting style that landed him jobs for Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Eminem, the latter serving as producer on this film. As a result of that style, the film becomes, at times, tiresome and annoying, when Kahn constantly whip-pans and zooms into close-ups. Not that these irksome quirks diminish the vibrancy of each individual rap battle Kahn portrays.
The script is penned by Alex Larsen (a.k.a. Kid Twist), a rap battle legend himself, whose own origin story as a self-professed nerdy white Canadian seems to be the inspiration behind Adam. The verses are wildly cerebral and complex but also base, marrying highbrow with the low. Larsen uses them to interrogate the lexicon of rap, trying to offer reasoning for why a smart, thoughtful person might also incorporate slurs against gay, black, Asian, and trans people into their verses, even if they wouldn’t use those words outside of a rap battle. Adam serves as the conduit for these reasonings and justifications, with his character’s inner dialogue in voice-over running through the pros and cons of every word: Is this sexist? Should I make a joke about Asians eating dogs? Is it too racist? Just racist enough? But Adam finds that it’s exactly those exaggerated insults that win crowd satisfaction and therefore the rap battle. And winning the battle becomes everything to Adam.
Much attention will likely be paid to Worthy and his performance as a walking dictionary who develops the bravado of a billionaire tech mogul. He’s quite convincing as a battle rapper, all the right words forming organically on his lips. But don’t forget Long, who’s expressive but grounded as Behn, anchoring this film in the kind of humanity that Adam lacks. It would have been satisfying to see more of this story through Behn’s eyes, but what the script fails to provide the character, Long fills in with his performance.
Larsen’s screenplay fascinatingly insulates itself from criticism, mostly by offering up the criticism first. Want to ask why most of the women in this film are bitches? Larsen’s already on it, by having one female character explain to another one that it’s not about being a woman—it’s about being a battle rapper. Want to point out that using offensive slurs, even in the context of a rap battle, doesn’t negate that they are offensive? Well, the script covers that, too, with Behn explaining that it’s the intent behind your words, the brazenness of crossing a line, that’s what actually hurts. As in the real world, there’s no easy path toward living the ultimate ethical life, and so justifications must be made to cope. Adam becomes a fountain of justifications as he grows ever more maniacal, his brain whirring with comebacks that feel good for him to say. He’s essentially addicted to crafting barbed bars to outwit his opponents. That’s his power.
Kahn and Larsen have a tendency to over-intellectualize their ideas. It’s like watching a self-defense mechanism work in real-time, and at lightning speed. And that in itself is impressive, even if it prevents the filmmakers from reaching any meaningful conclusions because it accurately presents the mental gymnastics a progressive person might engage in to justify their choices or wade through rigid social rules. Simultaneously entertaining, overwhelming, compelling, and grating, Bodied raises its hand and talks until words mean nothing and everything.