Film Review: Bodied

This Eminem-produced rap drama attempts to flip the script by both exploiting and harpooning p.c. culture, but generally defaults to fistfights and lazy insults.
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A main tenet of hip-hop is that rappers don’t fight, they battle, with rhymes. A true artist wins greater respect by assassinating rivals spitting lyrics than by engaging in any form of physical violence. The tepid drama Bodied jumps right onto that battleground tracing the odyssey of white kid Adam (Calum Worthy) into and to the top of the mostly black and Latino Bay Area rap-battle scene.

Adam and the film walk through whatever any neophyte might need to know about rapping, battling and so on, by having him explain to his girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold), so that her sarcasm and disinterest can at least be well-informed. They’re fellow UC Berkeley grad students, with Maya and their friend Becky (Lisa Maley) stridently upholding broad stereotypes of how ultra-liberal, feminist, intolerant-of-intolerance Berkeley students might behave.

In Adam’s university milieu, where he walks in the shadow of his professor dad (Anthony Michael Hall), and in the take-no-prisoners arena known as the Killerfornia Battle League, the movie offers heightened, not entirely credible, versions of college and street culture. The hardcore gangstas and porn stars, rappers and fans representing various races and ethnicities are set up to be books judged by their covers, all so Adam (and the audience!) may discover what humanity lies beneath easy first impressions.

It might be easier just to deem the drama, directed by Joseph Kahn, long a top music-video helmer, desperate to offend, for all the racist, sexist, homophobic takedowns these rappers toss at each other. But, in fact, it’s not so easy to dismiss the film’s heart and intelligence, especially as they’re expressed via Adam’s friendship and rivalry with battle star Behn Grymm (Jackie Long). The script, by real-life battle rapper Alex Larsen, also evolves an incisive message about how emcees could be savage and funny even without resorting to insults based on skin color and nationality. They just choose to aim for easy targets.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t risk taking its own advice. No one succeeds by aiming higher than low blows based on stereotypes. Either the filmmakers weren’t invested enough in trying, or they hadn’t yet cracked that code themselves. And for all its bluster about going after everybody equally, the film reserves its most gleeful shade for the hipster, vegan academics. It mostly gives a free pass to whatever wannabe devastating lines the rappers come up with, no matter how ignorant they sound. What might be considered devastating or dead funny here will be highly subjective, but none of it captures the wit of producer Eminem’s “Slim Shady,” which rolls under the closing credits.

Maybe the elusive Marshall Mathers is hidden somewhere in a crowd scene, but he makes no character appearance in the film, just on the soundtrack. He’s missed among the rap performers, who include real battle-rap notables Dumbfoundead and Dizaster, and actors who vary wildly in their emcee abilities. The leads Worthy and Long both hold their own on the microphone, sometimes augmented by onscreen graffiti-style text and graphics. Anthony Michael Hall, seemingly cast with a wink and a smile, is strangely dark but still amusing as Adam’s professor pops, and Debra Wilson adds a zany, but again, still amusing, cameo as a school dean. They’re certainly more amusing than all the rhymes that go for the jugular but land in the crotch.