It’s amazing how universal the language of loneliness can be. When COVID-19 came to our front door last year and forced all of us to socially distance from one another, a lot of us found ourselves staying indoors isolated from any human connection whatsoever. This has led to many of us being trapped not just inside our homes, but inside our thoughts, our emotions, our insecurities, and ultimately everything about our very being. I got to know David Dunn very well during my time quarantined with him last year, and I can tell you with utmost confidence that I don’t like him very much. I still don’t.
In Inside, Bo Burnham also finds himself locked in with himself (or at the very least, a caricature of himself) and struggling with the same emotions many of us experienced last year. In this new Netflix special, Bo writes, shoots, edits, directs, and performs everything all by himself inside of his apartment for a whole year to stop himself from “putting a bullet” into his head. Creating is no longer merely a source of enjoyment or fulfillment for him. Instead, it has become a literal means of survival, or at the very least, an attempt at some semblance of sanity or well-being.
I’m taking a break from my self-imposed hiatus to talk about Inside for a number of reasons. One is because I relate closely with the subject matter Bo explores here, and another is because I know Bo is a funny and introspective entertainer that evaluates deep and complex ideas and enjoys savagely deconstructing them for his viewers. But perhaps most simply, I genuinely felt inspired to talk about Inside. It’s funny how for the past year, I felt my reviews contributed nothing of significance to the general public during a pandemic, an election, and a racial and cultural reckoning that’s been long overdue. I still don’t, but I at least understand a lot of what is being explored in this film, and I think that’s worth talking about.
When Inside opens up, we see Bo’s younger self walk into his apartment, which is surprisingly a seamless transition from the ending of his last comedy special Make Happy five years ago. After the title screen, we see a gradual progression from the pale, baby-faced Bo we’re used to seeing into his older, bearded, lethargic self that sings about how exhausting menial tasks such as getting up and sitting down have become for him. Then in his first musical number “Comedy,” he reflects on how pointless joking seems in a time like this to the sounds of artificial laughter echoing in the background. His first words feel the most helpless: “I wanna help to leave this world better than I found it, and I fear that comedy won’t help, and the fear is not unfounded.”
It’s not even five minutes into the special, and we’re already fully immersed into the sentiment of what it was like living through 2020. The rest of the film is like that, observing deep social issues through the personalized lens of one guy locked inside his room for a full year. I think it’s funny how many films released last year tried to cheaply cash in on the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it was unbearable romantic comedies like Locked Down or the grossly manipulative horror film Songbird. Yet with Inside, Bo beautifully portrays what it was like living through 2020 better than any other film has so far.
It’s hard to know where to start with Inside, because so much of it is just so clever, ingenious, and original. Obviously, one of Bo’s most distinguishable elements as an artist is his music, which has always been equal parts funny, catchy, memorable, insightful, and incredibly entertaining. But while his quirky piano melodies and clever lyrics have always been his strongest suit as a performer, Bo is operating on a whole other level with Inside. He experiments and toys with multiple musical styles and genres throughout the film, whether it’s with the jazzy pizzaz of “Unpaid Intern,” the ’80s workout tunes of “Problematic,” or the folksy guitar strums of “That Funny Feeling.” Musically speaking, Bo is at his most versatile here and has never been better.
But it isn’t just his musical styles that stand out: his lyrics are equally mature, oddballish, and incredibly thought-provoking. In the innocent, adolescent sounds of “How The World Works,” Bo dispels of societal misconceptions with the help of a sock puppet facing an existential crisis, while in “30” he laments on growing older and becoming the quote-unquote “boomer” that he used to make fun of. One of the very best songs in the film is “Welcome To The Internet,” where he parodies the internet in a performance that can only be described as a millennial James Bond villain and monologues how he aims to take over every intimate, personal, chaotic moment of your whole life. The most eerie and sinister line comes in the chorus, where Bo asks “Could I interest you in everything all of the time?”
Surprisingly one of the most standout elements of this special is the visuals. I know, I know, a film shot entirely in one room over the course of a year doesn’t sound like it would be that eye-catching. But Bo makes excellent use of the space he’s confined to, composing captivating, sharp, and visually stimulating shots more so than even some filmmakers do on big-budget movie sets. During “FaceTiming With My Mom,” the dark blue hues of his room nicely complement the isolated feeling of being locked inside as the framing shrinks to the 16:9 ratio resembling a smartphone. Meanwhile in “Problematic,” the saturated oranges and reds shine vibrantly like a workout video, with a sweaty Bo riding on an exercise bike asking his viewers to “hold him accountable.”
The most visually impressive sequence lies in “White Woman’s Instagram,” where he hilariously parodies social media tropes inside of the 360:360 squares you’d normally see on Instagram. Not only is the song funny enough on its own, but the images and shots you see here accurately recreate some of the same photos you might see on Instagram. I’m not even kidding. Whether it’s latte foam art, an avocado, or a stunning light display, every image he captures could be pulled from the film and published on Instagram, and nobody would question it. It is that distinct and on-point.
All of these elements make Inside an entertaining comedy special, but not necessarily a unique one. What truly makes Inside stand out is its tone and emotional complexity. Throughout the picture, Bo visibly struggles with his isolation, anxiety, and depression, and this is further emphasized in the mood between cuts. During the musical numbers, the room is brightly lit up, the colors and their hues are shimmering and shining, and Bo seems genuinely happy, or at least entertained, while playing his piano and singing. But in between the music and skits, Bo is noticeably more solemn, somber, and sluggish: like it’s a challenge for him to even breathe sometimes.
I’ve seen this type of behavior before in myself last year. Whenever I was on Zoom calls, hopping onto daily FaceTime sessions, talking on the phone, or filming in front of my camera, my room and face was lit up with the same vibrancy and life that was on Bo’s. But whenever the cameras were shut off and I sat in my dark room scrolling through Twitter or Facebook, I felt a tightening around my chest like the world was closing in around me and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I feel like many people experienced this sensation last year, and Bo brilliantly recaptures the essence of that emotion with stunning detail… quite possibly because he went through that too.
The film’s most powerful moments come in the lead up to his second to last single “All Eyes On Me,” where Bo collapses into tears as he experiences a full-on mental and emotional meltdown. During the song, Bo asks us to pray for him in a mesmerizing symphony of sorrow, where he reveals he had struggled with panic attacks his whole life and was just getting better right before the pandemic hit last year. Again, I relate way too closely with this. Not only have I suffered from my own panic attacks as well, but I was just getting serious about seeking professional help last year before the pandemic shut everything down. The last verse most captures my emotional state last year: “You say the whole world’s ending? Honey, it already did.”
Finally in his last single “Goodbye,” Bo reflects on how much he’s changed over the last year and how he can never go back to who he once was. As I saw his younger, friendlier, familiar face fade into the grimy, unkempt appearance of a man as emotionally drained as he was exhausted, I cried as if I was saying goodbye to a dearly beloved friend I had known my entire life. I feel like in a way, Bo was saying goodbye to his old self in the song as he comes to realize he’s now a different person at the end of it all. Truthfully, the same thing happened to me last year too. I doubt any of us came out of 2020 being the same person we were at the beginning of it.
And throughout the whole special, you’re rooting for Bo to step outside, just once: to have the sun shining on his face, free from that crummy, dark, claustrophobic room, just trying to live his life one day — one breath — at a time. I am going to spoil it for you by saying he never does go outside. Instead, there’s a filmed bit where he steps outside to a spotlight shining on him and the sounds of applause cheering for him, but when he tries to go back inside, he panics when he discovers that he’s locked out while the audience laughs at him and his misery. The final shot is him watching this scene from his projector, and while the audience is laughing, he lets out a small smile from the corner of his mouth.
For some reason, I find this ending to be a much more fitting, much more powerful ending for the film rather than some melodramatic conclusion where he epically flings the door open and leaves his room forever. And the reason why is because it completely fits his character and where he is at by the end of the film. Throughout the picture, Bo struggles with his identity, his self-worth, and how he sees himself. After all, when the world is on literal fire outside of your home, how small and insignificant must you and your struggles feel compared to all of the misery and suffering going on outside of the world? But by the end of the film, Bo has come closer to a place of acceptance and self-realization. While there are things about himself he may never like and he may never get over, he has grown to be more comfortable — more aware — of himself, so much so that he can even utter out a small laugh at himself and not feel insecure for doing so.
To me, that’s more encouraging and sincere than a theatrical, over-the-top Hollywood ending ever could be. That shows growth. That shows progress. That shows hope that not only one day Bo may be truly comfortable with himself, but that he can one day maybe live his life free of the anxiety and panic that has plagued him for so long. Hope that one day, he may be able to step outside and not be afraid of doing so.
– David Dunn