Sorry To Bother You
The funny thing about Sorry to Bother You is that it's not. It is happy to bother you. Its off-kilter vibe pops like nothing else you'll see this year and if that's not for you, there's nothing that suggests they care.
Few premises have been an easier sell for me, personally. When I saw the first trailer for this, I was immediately hooked by the potential for whip smart commentary from this new director who seemed to have a certain offbeat sensibility. Boots Riley, a noted musician with muttonchops for facial hair and a certain affinity for a 70s G-Funk aesthetic, seemed to have created Get Out on LSD. Little did I know the actual movie is even more tripped out than the trailer. However you would imagine this movie turns out pales in comparison to what actually goes down. And in this case, that is both a blessing and a curse.
Our protagonist is a man named Cassius “Cash” Green (played by Lakieth Stanfield), who works as a telemarketer. He and his girlfriend, Detroit (played by Tessa Thompson), live in his uncle’s (played by Terry Crews) garage and struggle to make ends meet. One day, while on the job, an older Black man (played by Danny Glover), tells Cash that he can make a lot more money if he just uses his “White voice.” And while Cash thinks he is already doing so, the man shows him how to take it to another level. Here, the film uses dubbed White comedians (David Cross and Patton Oswalt, for instance) as the voices for these Black characters, creating some of the more hilarious content you will see this year.
Within the company, Cash hopes to rise to the ranks of “Power Caller,” the people responsible for selling more serious products. As he gets closer and closer to this goal, he must choose whether to abandon his friends and their efforts to gain a living wage by striking. But as Cash becomes more and more successful, he starts to get attention that makes it difficult to stay the course. What follows is an off-the-rails encounter with his boss (played by Armie Hammer), where Cash must decide what really matters to him.
In sum, Riley sees capitalism, and the pursuits within it, as a bastardization and perversion of what life is really about. It’s not clear what exactly he thinks life is actually about, but perhaps that’s the point as well—life is about what you make it and if you choose to make it about pointless career progression and mindless consumption, you are doing it wrong. The film almost gets there for me, but there are a few moments where it just left yards on the goal line. As the events unfolds, it wanders a bit and ends up being less effective than it could have been.
The Get Out comparison is an apt one as both are first time features by Black filmmakers working to comment on complex social structures in new and interesting ways. And while, Get Out certainly wasn’t a conventional narrative, Sorry To Bother You makes it look like Casablanca. The filmmaking is so audacious it has to be admired for the will to take it there. The entire experience pops off the screen and seems alive at every moment. If there is something it wants to say, it just does.
But along with that fearlessness of a first time filmmaker, there are some shortcomings. And while the budgetary constraints and traces of amateurism are forgivable, it is harder to overlook the lack of discipline. It is almost like he thinks this first effort will also be his last, which leads him to throw in every idea he could, making the final product overdone and overstuffed. Capitalism, consumerism, racism, classism. At times it feels like the movie is unsure which of these it actually cares about. It picks up threads and loses them in a way that is ultimately frustrating. For every ounce of unbridled creativity here, there is an equal measure of lack of focus. The end result is a feeling that you have spun around in your chair, but you haven’t really gone anywhere.
None of this is to say, however, that there is not a lot to recommend here. If you can buckle in and just enjoy the ride, it might be for you. The first half of the movie is about as inventive as I could imagine and I was on my way to giving this 4-stars. Everything about it felt so fresh and new, but also like it should have been here all along. The second half, however, felt like an ill-fated attempt to be quirky for quirky’s sake; to tell a story with twists that are more stupid than surprising. If you need your movies to develop in anything like a linear fashion and round out the arguments it seems to start, you might be frustrated. What starts as a tight allegory for the ills of capitalism morphs into a catch-all cacophony of absurdist events and over-the-top shenanigans. But one thing is certain, you will have something to say about this one, for better or for worse.
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