Confrontation is hard to make inviting. Especially in our modern world where it seems like we’re being bombarded with loud blaring voices of varying political spectrums on a daily basis, the idea of going to a film that directly dangles commentary and a point of view in your face seems like torture to endure. The truly great films that take on the times they are made in tend to stuff such material in a package so delectable that the confrontation becomes part of the entertainment. Baked firmly into the weirdly cartoonish action of Boots Riley‘s Sorry to Bother You is plenty of sharp satiric jabs of the knife that almost blindside audiences because of how much is being thrown at the screen. Yet, Riley isn’t disguising anything. Of the many things Sorry to Bother You is, it isn’t subtle. Yet, that’s not that much of a hindrance at all.
Given his history as a rapper and musician, Riley puts so much into the mix (figuratively and literally) with this simple story of a young man trying to make his way in the corporate world. Riley basically takes this simplistic premise he plants his lead character Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) into. At a time where he’s desperate to rise from his meager means and impress his rebel rousing performance artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), Cassius clings onto a job as a telemarketer. While he’s initially quite terrible at selling over the phone, Cassius eventually learns the secret from his older co-worker (Danny Glover) to use his “white voice” in order to appear confident, as presented by white comedian David Cross dubbing of Stanfield when he’s on the phone. This propels Cassius up the corporate ladder, alienating his co-workers and dragging him into dark webs of conspiracy that go to ludicrous places.
Despite the wackier areas it goes to, Sorry to Bother You never loses that relatable bitterly satiric bite the whole way throughout. Cassius is a masterful example of a worried young everyman in our modern world; trying to survive while pondering if anything they do ultimately matters. Stanfield embodies all of this with his typical quiet charm that radiates as a young man trying to navigate the world of capitalism and find a path that leads to dangerous places. A hero with believably manipulatable morals in the face of opportunity. Plus, the use of His quietness perfectly bounces off Thompson as an outwardly mobile woman of color out to express herself, yet has an oddly earnest sincerity toward Stanfield’s reserved charms. So as he slowly starts to lose his morals, this other worldly satire keeps an honest emotional core that’s sad to see dissipate with their relationship and Stanfield’s desire to betray his friends Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) and Squeeze (Steven Yeun). Squeeze admittedly feels like a bit of a waste for such an underrated charismatic presence, but Fowler stands out as an affably aloof guy for Stanfield to bounce off of. One back and forth of The Dozens that takes overly complimentary turns between the two is one of the comedic highlights of 2018 so far.
The path through this story as depicted in Sorry to Bother You is unlike most other films out there. A funhouse full of garishly colored caricatures of the larger world. Where callers are motivated by the idea of tagging vs bagging bodies and shown as literally teleporting into the private homes of the people they call. The elaborate production design finds the familiar corners of our world. It’s like turning the dingiest corners of an Oakland city torn apart by grime & poverty, only to find the neighborhood slowly transforming into a Pee-Wee’s Playhouse version of that same street. Riley manages to make a movie that feels like a feature length energetically odd music video that largely keeps that pace for an hour and forty five minutes of run time. It’s a feat that I’ve never quite seen duplicated cinematically and Sorry to Bother You does it effortlessly. Riley stuffs so much into everything from the overall sound mix to the curious background extras to breathe unique life into this strange world. Whether it’s a small reference to our modern political landscape or some due wearing a tie dyed shirt, it gives us a peak into this capitalist dystopia Riley has created as a mirror of our own world.
Yet, Sorry to Bother You doesn’t lose sight of the message in the middle of the chaos. Despite how over the top someone like the eye patched Mr. ________ (Omari Hardwick with a white voice from Patton Oswalt) or the manic corporate honcho Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) serve as icons of what selling out human kind can be. The individuals of apathy and desire for greed that give a human face to look to as a way of representing the garish culture these character populate which only feels like a few degrees higher than our own. One where the biggest thing on TV is literally a show where people are beaten severely on camera in front of a horrific game show set called “I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me” and the leading employment opportunity is Worryfree, a not at all thinly laid metaphor for prison workforce that’s treated as a stress free job/housing development. All of this is mostly displayed in the background, but firmly cements Boots as a modern film satirist of the likes not often seen since Alex Cox or Paul Verhoven. Where the turns taken are never expected and smash you head on with what is being said.
Sorry to Bother You is an example of a film that may not be for everyone that should still be seen by everyone. It’s challenging cinema that could and – based on the amount of people who walked out of my screening at a certain late breaking plot point – will alienate mainstream audiences who were merely looking for a fun time. Sorry to Bother You delivers plenty of funny highly entertaining joke set pieces, but doesn’t do so lightly. It can be brutally hard to watch for how real the heightened events can feel on more of an emotional level, but challenging cinema like this is exactly what needs to be encouraged. Even for the few jokes that fall flat, Sorry to Bother You keeps steadfast to its mission statement of confronting the audience on issues of race relations, capitalism gone mad, cultural erosion and the line between success & selling out. Even if it “bothers you,” the bothering is worth letting you get hit in the face.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Soda Cans to the Face