Joseph Kahn is some sort of demented genius, that’s for sure. His creativity is beyond undeniable — he’s one of the world’s most acclaimed music video directors, having done everything from Britney Spears’s “Toxic” to Eminem’s “Without Me” to Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” But he can also sometimes be his own worst enemy. The feature films he’s made over the past decade and a half have felt like cult classics in waiting. 2004’s gonzo biker-gang extravaganza Torque consciously made mincemeat of its own story, but delivered such hyperkinetic bursts of stylization that it has withstood the test of time. 2012’s Detention was a midnight movie that took aim at other midnight movies, an endlessly layered comedy-drama-sci-fi-horror flick that somehow got the basics of teenage longing just right, but was often too frantic to make us care for any of its characters. Kahn is very good at grabbing our attention, it seems, but less so at keeping it.
With Bodied, his dazzling, occasionally aggravating, always fascinating battle rap comedy-drama, he seems to have fixed that problem, to some degree. That might be because he’s working from a fairly old and simple template: Dorky outsider triumphs, makes new friends, possibly loses his soul. But it’d be wrong to call the film’s protagonist, Adam (Calum Worthy), a hero. A scrawny, downright irritating Berkeley grad student working on a thesis about “the poetic functions of the N-word in battle rap,” he likes to hang out in basements and empty garages listening to Oakland’s finest drop bars on each other.
The insults on display during these confrontations are simultaneously creative, cruel, and childish: “This motherfucker go online and Google food porn / Or as it’s known to you, porn. / You so fat, when you tuck a gun in your waist you need to use a fucking shoehorn.” Or: “I’m the only reason these people here know what your name is. / But you’re gonna be like Kim K. after we take this / And I’m gonna be like Ray J, since I’m the dickhead that’s making you famous.” Okay, that maybe doesn’t look all that special written down, but trust me — in the moment, it’s electrifying.
One night, geeky Adam gets challenged in a parking lot, and lo and behold, our nerdy white boy turns out to have some skills. Before long, he’s being inducted into the small underground community of battle rappers, even as he argues with his hyper-intelligent college pals about racism and misogyny and homophobia in hip-hop. “You can hardly blame a marginalized group for its own internalized white supremacy when society has been enforcing it since its, like, inception,” his girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) declares during one dinner conversation after someone asks why so much of rap indulges in stereotypes about blacks and guns and violence. “Actually, that’s racist,” another friend replies. “You’re positing a total lack of self-determination on the minority’s part!” And round and round it goes, as Adam and his pals argue themselves down rabbit holes of identity theory — trying to untangle who’s racist and who’s not, as well as who gets to be offended, and on whose behalf. It’s kind of like Twitter, but even more annoying.
A little of this stuff goes a long way, and the first half of Bodied is a bit awkward, as Adam delves deeper into his newfound subculture while becoming further ostracized from the hyper-sensitive Berkeley community. The battle rap scenes are dynamic, but the film sometimes stumbles when the drama moves elsewhere. That’s in part because almost nobody has been fleshed out to feel like a real person. The college kids are paper-thin and grating. And aside from a veteran named Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) who takes Adam under his wing, most of the battle rappers haven’t been drawn with much nuance either.
But what the latter lack in dimension, they make up for in charisma. The movie presents us with a diverse cross-section of performers — there’s a Korean rapper, a Persian rapper, an Ecuadorian rapper, and so on — and it’s genuinely exciting to watch them take all this abuse, filled with slurs and stereotypes, and hurl it right back. Of course, as they remind us, insults about your skin or eyes or accent are mundane and easily anticipated. It’s the targeted, personal ones that cut the deepest, the broadsides directed at the stuff that makes you an individual, instead of a member of a demographic.
And Adam, it turns out, is really good at that last part. The fairly staid nature of the picture’s first half turns out to have been an elaborate, delayed-gratification set-up for the big kill, a huge set piece at the end where pretty much all our characters wind up battling each other in various, sometimes shifting arrangements. Again, nothing new: It’s the championship, the title bout, the big tournament, the final debate/sing-off/dance-off/whatever. But the fact that this game is predicated on creatively offending your opponent as savagely as possible makes the whole thing that much more bizarre. It’s an orgy of invective, and it is thrilling.
Kahn shoots these confrontations with verve and rhythm, but he doesn’t try to fancy things up stylistically, the way he might have in earlier films. He understands that the energy these performers bring to their face-offs supersedes whatever camera or editing tricks he might deploy. The artistry here lies in the mutations and permutations of language and rhythm that are spoken onscreen. Bodied is uneven, but it has the fire where it counts.