A former YouTube star grapples with his narcissism, white guilt, and the pandemic by singing funny songs about FaceTiming with his mom, the crippling constraints of capitalism, and sexually graphic emojis. In terms of capturing this specific zeitgeist, maybe we just cram Bo Burnham: Inside into the time capsule and get back to pretending that posting about mental health on social media is the same as doing the work of therapy?
To be sure, many have (and will) find Burnham’s brand of self-deprecating cleverness beyond insufferable. The first two of the Netflix special’s 20-or-so songs are tongue-in-cheek apologia for daring to “be joking at a time like this,” an actual, verbatim lyric. The question is whether you find the director/comedian/musician’s greasy, unkept schtick here to be an entertaining and authentic exploration or an arrogant and calculated exploitation. The latter is a position so defensible, Burnham himself seems to be frequently advocating for it.
Increasingly prevalent public discussions about mental health are so often sanitized and reductive. Inside is one of the first popular pieces of art that attempts to meaningfully tackle the intersection of depression/anxiety and grandiose self-importance. To be clear, this isn’t just about insecurity that manifests itself as a need to be praised and liked, although Burnham tackles that too. This is about how we have manufactured a perfect storm, an invisible factory that is churning out sad, lonely, mentally ill people who are also simultaneously super-big-time self-absorbed narcissistic jerkwads.
That’s the big throughline of Inside, although it takes delightful pitstops to fling whizz at Jeffrey Bezos, mourn the irrelevance that comes with aging, and contemplate the inherent hilarity of sexting. It’s all funny. Very funny, in fact. That is, provided that rhythmic wordplay is your thing and that Burnham’s “I’m one of the good rich white dudes” demeanor isn’t comedy kryptonite to you.
If it does resonate, chances are it will be because of moments like one in “White Woman’s Instagram,” an impossibly catchy tune. About halfway through, Burnham acknowledges that he is plucking low-hanging humor fruit, pivots, and unleashes a surprisingly sincere mini-monologue from the perspective of his titular target. It made me cry. For real, not joking, made me actually cry.
It got to me not just because it showed that there’s a way to be empathetic and compassionate towards people who are “just the worst.” It broke me because it showed a fundamental understanding of that aforementioned complicated intersection between anxiety/depression and arrogance. I don’t know if scenes of Burnham weeping were “fake.” Maybe? Probably? I still can’t think of many examples of men in mainstream entertainment even pretending to actually cry.
Is Inside going to fix toxic masculinity, keep malignant celebrity activism in check, or help a buncha folks realize they’re not just depressed they’re also assholes? Absolutely not. But it is dangerously close to brilliant, relentlessly funny, surprisingly cinematic, and at least chooses to focus on often unaddressed matters of consequence. As far as streaming comedy specials go, that’s not too shabby.
Grade = A+
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Alison Shoemaker at the AV Club says “The filmmaking is inherently and marvelously theatrical, the performance almost uncomfortably vulnerable, all carried off with a shrug that seems to say, ‘Too soon? Yeah, probably, but fuck it.’”
Kathryn VanArendonk at Vulture says “In some moments it’s Tristram Shandy, in others it’s Parks and Rec’s Ben Wyatt holding up a Claymation figure and asking, “Do you think a depressed person could make this??’”
Pablo Villaça at Cinema Em Cena says “By virtue of being free from the obligation to make the audience laugh every 30 seconds, Burnham allows himself to experiment with the form and the rhythm of his special, creating a structure that is simply brilliant.”