Inside (Review)

Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is one of the best films of the last few years. It displays a nuanced understanding of relevant topics; has a clear point of view; works as a character study (and drama) as well as a message movie and, most importantly, finds the right voice for its story. The content in it shows Burnham’s hopes, fears and knowledge of the modern world, but it is an externalising process – in which he is able to find an avatar that exists outside of himself and speaks beyond his limited perspective. This takes it away from solipsism and brings perceptivity and genuine worth.

If Eighth Grade is a societal portrait, Inside is a self portrait. The technical understanding is still there but the perceptivity and insight is dulled by insularity. We have lost the forced distance, the need to think outside of oneself and to make an empathetic work. What we are left with is myopic, clumsy and scattered. A central refrain (this is, primarily, a performance art piece – a one man show that is mostly made up of songs) declares, mockingly, ‘can I interest you in everything all of the time?’ It is an accurate summation of what the internet does to us and how it overwhelms us. Eighth Grade has similar insights, but it does not just say them to you (like previous Burnham ‘shows’, this leaves no space for the viewer in a suffocating fashion) – it reveals, it gleans understanding out of humanity, it gives room for the viewer. The statement in Inside is not untrue but it is incredibly surface level. It is the beginning of an argument and it is merely an observation with no worth outside of itself – and an already apparent truth.

The wider issue is that ‘can I interest you in everything all of the time?’ it is the philosophy that drives this piece. This work is just everything all of the time, in a way that is empty, disposable and – often – deeply irritating. But it knows this. It comments on this. It continues the Burnham trend of being aware of a potential criticism and therefore giving lip service to it, and feeling that is enough. This is an unfocused work, it is a mess – to be blunt, but the film starts by acknowledging this. And this is the game Burnham continues to play with his audience; there is a large element of him thinking for them but it is more him thinking over them. It is the post-modern affectation of never having to say you are sorry, truly, because everything is affected or ironic. It is the worst kind of post-modernism, and is falsely post-modern. In place of meaningful experimentation with form, content and a questioning of art’s conversation with the audience, we have a repetitive sequence of gimmicks that differ visually but all have the same overall function. The lights change, the projection changes, there are overlays, but nothing really changes. It is the same group of observations, with the same group of caveats. It is the comedy of gestures – pointing vaguely towards something and identifying a nebulous issue, or an overt societal concern. The punchline? A shrug. A sense of disaffected resignation.

This work edges towards territory that should inspire action, that should provoke but the tone is one of lassitude. This is a call to inaction peppered with shallow thoughts. It may wear different clothes to the comedy of ‘what’s the deal with blah?’ in which the question is the point, but it boils down to just that. It is a dated approach restaged and levelled at newer material. But Burnham knows this, his songs – and monologues – mention similar critiques. He stays a step ahead. But it is a step ahead in execution rather than planning. Recognising critique is not the same as acknowledging it; his work does not seem organic or like it has progressed – or like it is pushing forward. It is just aware of its shortcomings and will tell you them. The shortcomings remain. There is the tacit understanding the whole way through that you don’t really believe these critiques, that Burnham is above these observations – after all, he is aware of them. But the work goes nowhere.

Key songs show this, as they function at the level of Buzzfeed listicles or editorials. The repeated conclusion is: this is messed up, what ae we going to do about it? Apparently just sit in our rooms. But then this is paired with attempts at deep interiority, as if the work was a deconstruction of self. Recognising limitations and making art about yourself, and your flaws, can be transcendent and important. This, however, reeks less of art and more of artifice. There is yet another game we are supposed to play, that is believing that Burnham is enclosed, is isolated – is locked down – and we are supposed to link his claustrophobic reality to ourselves. It also is supposed to reflect his mental state, one of compression. But the work cannot commit to this, it wants to be everything all the time. It can’t interrogate the self without popping away to an editing gimmick or to a novelty song, and then feels the need to get topical. Its inability to deal with actual themes and ideas of import would not matter if it did not feel the need to constantly reference them. To watch Inside is to watch Bo Burnham run down a corridor opening all the doors, going into none of them but vaguely describing the problems in each one. He will tell you one room is on fire, but he won’t do anything about it – and then will comment on not doing anything about it.

The central annoyance is the fakery, though. When people have been actually isolated and locked down, to see this pantomime of that is crass. Bo Burnham has set up an outhouse to look like a depressingly meagre living situation. Where some are stuck in spaces like this, and worse, he cosplays this reality – presenting a privilege as a burden. Burnham could leave, the pantomime could end and though, fundamentally, the space is more metaphor than anything – it is supposed to represent a symbolic isolation – it still feels far too charged. The words of Pulp’s Common People echo, unfairly, through my head: ‘if you called your dad he could stop it all’. And while this is a reductive criticism, it is rooted in truth. This is not a work of raw honesty, it is a work of performance – much like Make Happy (a previous stand-up special). While that criticised and actually dug into how performativity is used to mask insecurity, and how artifice is used deceptively, this backs away. There is even a song in Inside about how his material used to be inappropriate – how he is problematic. This is true, his early specials are full of homophobic slurs used under the guise of irony – and even have ‘ironic’ racist rhetoric at points. He’s moved beyond this, that’s fine. But the song doesn’t actually mention these specific transgressions. It instead gives one example – a deeply removed one – gives it a caveat and treats it as a universal symbol for his wrongs (he gives enough, and dilutes it enough, so that the audience will still love him even during a self critique). Even in interrogating his past self, Burnham will not engage in specific or reality – it is never not just a gesture. It all rings false, or just performed, and nothing in it justifies this. Mati Diop’s In My Room is a much more sincere and artful take on isolation, and it is a short. And it is a clothing advert.

Inside is everything all of the time. It is a work in which Bo Burnham does a fake Twitch Stream in which he controls himself as if he is a player character. The game is called Inside. There is already a game called Inside. But this does not matter. This is not about the external world. This is a narcissistic work in which everything is boiled down to a singular lens as it presents an uncomfortable sense of universality, through vague references and overt self centering. It is all a sequence of presenting a specific self as default, it is an onanisitc pursuit in which social commentary is mixed with self-interrogation in a way that presents one self as the only perspective worth presenting. Where Eighth Grade knew what lens to use to view its content from, this overwhelms its content with the wrong lens. In the end, watching Bo Burnham’s Inside is like attending a palm reading or a fortune teller, in which vagueness and shallow observations are used to present a facade of insight. He sees me. He hears me. He knows me. But it is all him first with little else to see outside of that. And, this wouldn’t matter – in fact it could all be of genuine worth – if it didn’t seem so deeply artificial. When you bet all of your money on insularity, you have to make it seem real.

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