It was always just sitting there, waiting for somebody to attempt it.
The chest thumping, ego-tripping, rhymed insult fights that began life as “The Dozens” and morphed into “rap battles” was ripe for a smart, mouthy, down and dirty comedy.
“Bodied” is a seriously funny — laugh out loud, PBR through the nose funny. And the framing device, a white academic — an English major, of course — studying hip hop for his master’s thesis, “The Varied Poetic Functions of the N-word” in Battle Rap,” provides an entre to the form for those last holdouts who don’t take the talent, quick-thinking wit and artistry of rap seriously.
That’s Adam’s function in this clever, canny, outstays-its-welcome goof on art form. Calum Worthy of TV’s “Austin & Ally” and “American Vandal” is sort of a ginger Tobey Maguire, a hint of “Gee whiz” about him as he acts as surrogate for the audience, watching rap battles, explaining them to his nerdy womynist vegan girlfriend (Rory Uphold, hilarious) even as she obsessed about the violent, sexist imagery of these profane throw-downs.
“It’s a gun metaphor,” translates at one point.” “I think we can assume everything’s a gun metaphor.”
Berkeley student Adam connects with one of the top dogs of this Oakland underground scene, the smart and amazingly accepting rapper who goes by “Behn Grymm.” The fact that he’s using a homophone for Ben Grimm, “The Thing” of The Fantastic Four,” should be a tip that Adam shouldn’t condescend to him when explaining his thesis. The guy throws “Sue Storm” (another Fantastic Four member) into his rhymed insults, “Sandra Bullock couldn’t save your black ass (a “Blind Side” shot)” at his obese foe.
So Adam asking about “the N word as an intensifier for both comedic and intimitadory effect…or as a rhythmic flourish” is child’s play to Grymm (Jackie Long, suggesting depth and wit and “Sure, I could put up with a white mascot” warmth in his performance).
As Adam’s questions point to his seriousness and genuine affection for and understanding and appreciation for the form, Grymm throws him into a post-event parking lot rap battle with another ditzy white rapper wannabe. Ignoring girlfriend Maya’s shrieks of “cultural APPROPRIATION,” Adam engages, tests himself (he dabbled with a “slam poet” phase), Adam thinks of his feet, cooks up intricate rhyme scheme insults (slowly) with obscure, literate and culturally-sharp references.
And impresses. The guys, and women like Devine Wright (Shoniqua Shandai) start to accept him. Maya’s demands be damned, Adam is hooked.
What lifts what could be another “white boy takes rap by storm” story (scripted by Alex Larsen, directed by Jonathan Kahn) is the film’s satiric sting. There’s little reluctance in allowing Adam’s inclusion in this world. But everybody from Maya to Grymm to Behn’s wife (Candice Renee) brings up the race thing, the “cultural appropriation” thing, what Adam is and isn’t allowed to use in these seriously politically incorrect battles. Sexism, homophobia and race make it into battles. Adam isn’t given the same license.
“If you really wanna a ‘nigga’ pass, move back to New York.”
The self-satisfied and prudishly PC Maya lands the best shot — “Do you REALLY want to be another white guy appropriating black culture? We don’t NEED MAcklemore. We need MackleLESS.”
But as Adam takes down this white rapper (“You’re suffering from I Wanna be Down Syndrome.”) and holds his own against Korean rapper Prospeck (Jonathan Park), as he starts treating Maya with the male privilege (groupies) endemic to this scene (not a good idea), he wins attention and “respect” for his thesis.
Not from his star academic dad (Anthony Michael Hall in a biting, aloof and clueless-but -doesn’t-know-it turn).
Kahn stages the battles like prize fights, a swirling camera circling bouts titled accordingly — “Devine Wright vs. Groom” — with in-your-face rhyme-spitting, many a finger jab given a visual/aural gunshot effect.
Yeah, “battles” can be bloody.
I loved the way much is left unexplained, slang (“You gots bars, son!”) and just why this culture which treats the kid with contempt one minute and embraces his embrace of that culture the next.
The script lets characters play stereotypes — Maya’s gender identity politics, Prius driving feminist/communist veganism, contribute to her emasculating harpy image, the “Asian” guy has an Asian guy’s job — and points out those cultural cliches. The movie generally circles back around and upends those stereotypes.
Maya and her PC friends insist that Adam demonstrate, on the fly, how he’d insult them in a rap battle, but he keeps the ugliest stuff he thinks up (which we hear and see) in his head. The friends have that patronizing take on African American culture of the liberally clueless.
“Your exaggerated Ebonics are offensive.”
“I can’t be a racist. I’m Asian.”
The milieu is colorful, with too many funny, feisty rappers to name here. They are legion, from the master of ceremonies who introduces Adam as “The Nerd who Needs No Revenge,” peers who drop a little “He so white, he make Michael Jackson look like…Michael Jackson” and nail “Home Alone” and other movie references.
“Oh the irony, You look like Ron Weasley, you sound like Hermione.”
Adam’s not-quite-benign racist assumptions have him constantly surprised at the houses, the “real life” work and personas of the people he battles. Smart battlers aren’t ghetto, aren’t broke and aren’t to be underestimated.
And the rapping and dialogue just sparkles. The film even breaks the fourth wall as Jas (Renee) “black-splains” how the movie fails “The Bechdel Test.”
The third act, built around a far more “serious” battle, drags and drags and is the main reason this otherwise light-on-its-feet romp clocks in at a tedious two hours.
But for its first 90 minutes, “Bodied” dazzles, ducks and dishes through a corner of hip hop most of us only experience through documentaries or Youtube clips. Here’s a movie that takes the form seriously, and gives us a taste of how hilarious it can be — for those not on the receiving end of these epic couplets of insult.
MPAA Rating: R for strong language and sexual content throughout, some drug use and brief nudity
Cast: Calum Worthy, Jackie Long, Rory Uphold, Shoniqua Shandai, Debra Wilson, Dizaster and Charlamagne Tha God
Credits:Directed by Joseph Kahn, script by Alex Larsen. A Neon release.
Running time: 2:00