Movie Reviews

An Emotional, Transformative Masterpiece | “Bo Burnham: Inside” (2021) Netflix Movie Review

For me and millions of other fully-vaccinated people, the coronavirus pandemic is slowly receding into our rearview mirrors, though the delta variant of the virus still makes it a concrete danger for the unvaccinated, and in countries with little to no vaccine access, the virus is still raging in full force. Still, the virus brought with it universal human experiences of isolation, loneliness, fear and reflection, and in his newest special “Inside”, comic-director-actor Bo Burnham taps into them in a truly unique way.

Burnham is most known for his stand up comedy skits that feature introspective and silly, but musically creative songs, though he has forayed into film and television as an actor. More recently, he won acclaim for his directorial debut in his first feature film “Eighth Grade”, which I reviewed here. As such, “Inside” uses all of his talents, as its main premise sees Burnham stuck in a room for a year during the pandemic to produce another comedy special, leaving him to serve as his own crew, film editor, director, star, and screenwriter. As such, Burnham is forced to implement creative solutions from all of these roles, which allow him to break free of the limitations of the traditional comedy special, which lets him experiment with form and content in a way I’ve never seen before.

This truly feels like a film only Burnham could have made, as it takes full advantage of his talent as a musician, actor and director. There’s a handful of funny songs that feel exactly like what you’d see in his other comedy specials, with the film’s opening number “Comedy” and “How the World Works” (Note that the song “Content” appears before “Comedy”, but it really functions as a prelude) being two such songs. But there’s also a fairly large part of the special that’s not funny per se, but it deals more with the isolation of being stuck in a room during the pandemic, cut off from the real world, relegated to contacting your mom only through FaceTime, dating only online, and dealing with the emptiness of having the online world be your only world. And Burnham is not afraid to address heavy, personal themes, as the special itself documents his own journey of returning to comedy after a 5-year absence, only to have his original plan of doing live shows destroyed by the pandemic at the last minute, as well as the very personal and self-critical way in which artists view their own work and relentlessly probe it for errors and imperfections.

Despite being labeled — erroneously in my opinion — as a TV special, “Inside” truly is Burnham’s second feature film as a director, and as such, it’s a masterclass in cinematography, direction, and performance. It’s truly amazing how he makes his one room feel brand new and different in so many ways through his clever use of editing, camera angles, and lighting and framing techniques. The film never feels cheap, despite the fact that it’s entirely possible that it was produced at little or no cost to Burnham himself — the most expensive things we see are his film equipment, with the film using mostly modest props and clever but cheap filming techniques. In fact, I found that it looked better and was more engaging than most multimillion blockbusters, mostly because there’s so much artistry and creativity from a visual perspective in this film. But what really holds the film together is Burnham’s keen mastery of dramatic and comedic timing, and his energy as a performer.

One of my favorite moments in the film, in which Bo Burnham reacts to a short musical number he made. Then he reacts to his reaction in real time. Them he reacts to his reaction of his reaction, until the original musical number disappears from view.

Why I think Burnham originally stood out with his comedic songs is that he understands that comedy is all about timing and rhythm, and the same can be true of drama. He also understands that, because he borrows heavily from musical theater, he doesn’t have to assault the viewer with joke after joke in hopes of keeping them on their toes — there are large portions of his songs where they just sound nice, and are allowed to either build a narrative or provide witty commentary. And like I said before, in “Inside”, his songs get sad and depressing at times especially as he grapples with loneliness, and he very smarty intercuts these heavy numbers with dialogue to show his inner turmoil of not only making the special, but dealing with the isolation of the pandemic and his own perfectionism. But he always knows the appropriate moment when to be funny, when to cut to dialogue, what to show the audience and what not to show. “Inside” is made by someone who’s a master of his craft, as he keenly understands how the human brain processes drama and visuals, and how you don’t need to throw million dollars visuals at them to provoke an emotional response.

“Inside” is not just a film that seeks to make you laugh, it wants you to think more deeply on how the world works and your place in it, and it wants you to feel a range of emotions while doing so. In truth, “comedy special” isn’t a really good way to describe this — it’s more of an experience made possible only through the medium of film as Burnham combines serious drama with comedy through his mastery of music and musical presentation and the camera itself.

Burnham uses a variety of lighting and film techniques to make the film’s one location (a single room) feel different and new.

I usually try to hold back on calling films I really like masterpieces, especially knowing that my opinion will probably evolve with time and distance, but there’s no way I can’t describe Burnham’s “Inside” as one. It captures a unique experience through film I’ve never had before, using clever and masterful film techniques that fully take advantage of Burnham’s fantastic performances and thoughtful lyrics. It’s an example of exactly how a production can go right when one person has complete creative control, even if they only have access to rudimentary film equipment and props. Burnham vividly shows through “Inside” that he has more talent and artistry in his pinky than most blockbuster directors have in their entire careers.

I am curious to see how it will be like viewing this film five years from now, when the cultural and social context it was created in has receded into the past, but if anything, I’d say that this will probably be a great film to show future generations what it was like to live through COVID-19, as it does do a great job of communicating through emotions what it was like during the pandemic.

I don’t give 10/10s lightly on this website. But I honestly can’t find any meaningful flaws in this film. I wouldn’t change anything — even its flat, arguably bad shots and awkward moments serve key purposes to the film’s strong themes and structure, at times giving you a break from its high-energy numbers, at others, making its impressive reveals all the more stunning.

“Bo Burnham: Inside” gets a 10/10

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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