In the third act of Sorry to Bother You, two men spend a bit blithely pondering on the meaning of some street art being used to send a direct revelation we the audience are already in on by that point. And in the middle of their discussion, the character we know to be the artist steps up in exasperation and states in a monotone “Maybe the artist was being literal.” This is so far along the film that I can’t imagine somebody needing to get such a direct message by writer/director Boots Riley, known as the radical frontman of the political hip hop group The Coup, but if you needed to be reminded that Sorry to Bother You had all the subtlety of a Bong Joon-ho or Elio Petri film (including similar attitudes on class and industry), then you ARE right in Sorry to Bother Your‘s target audience anyway, so what am I gonna blame?
For the record, I uniformly love Bong Joon-ho’s movies and pretty much the two Elio Petri films I’ve seen. So, it should be pretty damn clear early on what side I’m on regarding Sorry to Bother You‘s bravado.
It’s not just that Sorry to Bother You lays its leftist themes on thick with every step of its plot, it’s also a rare and rarely powerful thing: it is the most literal surrealist film I’ve seen since Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, both of which sharing the traits that they come from wild and bizarre visualizing a world only slightly different from ours. Hell, I’d say that Riley is so much more direct in the draining effect of capitalism on the individual than Lynch in his films’ themes (deliberately of course). It might help that I agree whole-heartedly with its observations and that prevents me from finding it heavy-handed but I can’t imagine any scenario where this kind spirited clarity of vision and message isn’t compulsive and involving for a viewer, especially with the relentless mania Sorry to Bother You expresses.
One way the film accomplishes a sense of a wild fever dream without being vague about its themes is in its star, Lakeith Stanfield. Stanfield has been spending much of the decade getting more and more visibility and his arguably most popular roles to date, Darius on the tv show Atlanta and a tragic bit part in Get Out, have been done well enough to sell us on his greatest strength, having zoned-out facial expressions that look like he just had the wind knocked out of him. He brings appropriate existential fear to every development no matter how high or low they take him. Stanfield makes an excellent human anchor to how ridiculous things are getting.
Anyway, Stanfield’s Cassius “Cash” Green is starting from the bottom: living out of his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage in Oakland with a car so beat-up it smokes after he uses it and he has to physically move the windshield wipers. We meet him just as he gains a telemarketing job that he hopes will give him more than 40 cents for gas, but the intrusive and stressful commission-based job is proving to be an unsuccessful venture until a veteran black co-worker (Danny Glover) informs him on how to assure the people they’re calling: using an unthreatening idealized inner white voice (in Cassius’ case, provided by David Cross; I swear Glover’s sounds uncannily like Steve Buscemi but apparently it’s an uncredited sound engineer). Cassius’ quick mastery of the tactic gains him attention of his frustrated co-workers, organized by Squeeze (Steven Yeun) to revolt against their skeezy supervisors (Robert Longstreet, Kate Berlant, and a perfectly cast Michael X. Sommers). Cassius also gets those supervisors’ attention while they seduce him with the unconfirmed possibility of ascending to “power caller” level.
And it’s from here where I feel like Sorry to Bother You comes so wild that I can’t move any further up in a plot synopsis without spoilers, but at the margins of this story are the ominous presence of WorryFree, a company that blatantly imprisons workers for a lifetime of labor in exchange for not paying for your prison cot, sleeping cell, cold cafeteria food, and jumpsuits. And standing against WorryFree is the radical group Left Eye, where we learn that Cassius’ artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) aids with agitprop art in an attempt to let others know about the evils of WorryFree and its sociopathic CEO
Jeff Bezos Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).
Cash’s story will collide with that political atmosphere sooner than he expects as Sorry to Bother You has an obscene amount of momentum in his opening rise, rushing into his power crawl, with oh so much information being dropped in between scene transitions because we can’t wait to see ourselves at the top before the film suddenly feels like the new trials of Cash are prolonged and stretched out and his relationships become so much more strained and his conscience tugged at with no end in sight. The movie doesn’t become sluggish or sedate – it’s much too nervy and wired for that – but it doesn’t feel as brisk and the script loses sense of its structure. This only makes me relate further to Cash and his anxieties and while I certainly get the complaints about Riley’s still green handle on filmmaking, I can’t help finding this “weakness” into a strength.
And besides which I think there’s a serious underestimation on Riley’s ability as a storyteller, even from fans of the movie. Visually, he has an eye for frames that use lines and blocking to corner and box Cash in discomfort whether he’s in an extravagant chandeliered elevator, his broke car, a Fortune 500 glass office, a chill-out bar in sleepy dark blues and reds, a big mansion filled with debauched people, or a cold blue cubicle. He’s able to use sound mixing in such a surrounding and asphyxiating sense, whether the music at a party or an angry crowd of protestors. He has an unstoppable imagination on how far he can push the directness of his storytelling: not only with the white voice dubbing, but sequences that drop Cash from his cubicle into other people’s home adding to his sense of intrusion with his cold-calling or how as Cash starts coming up, Riley has his humble setting and fixtures of his garage room crack open like shells to unveil upgrades in wealth until he’s living in a clean white window surrounded high-rise apartment. And this is to say nothing of Jason Kisvarday’s set designs and Deirdre Elizabeth Govan’s costumes themselves feeling like extensions of Detroit’s artwork, like her constantly changing earrings or the transparency of the WorryFree ads’ sinister nature. The two of them provide a block-colored alternative Oakland, both in the walls and the inhabitants trapped within those walls.
Riley’s also proven to be an impressive director of performances as there’s a clear line dividing his dedicated ensemble between the evil corporate leaders embracing the ghoulish caricature they’re playing. Omari Hardwick’s Mr. _______ not as wild, but his presence is such a confident and aggressive tower of masculinity in his facial hair and suits to match and the fact that his name is constantly bleeped and almost all of his lines are spoken by Patton Oswalt helps. Hammer especially digs deep from his privileged background to add a huge layer of disconnect with every other character unless his relationship is owning them. Meanwhile, the characters we align with like Cash, Squeeze, and Detroit are so grounded and down-to-earth to be relieving company. Even the comic best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) is of more “hang-out” humor than anything else.
All this competence turns Riley’s other “weakness” into a strength: his refusal to keep leash on the tonal changes of the movie. It flips from hilarity to horror on and off without any true rhythm to familiarize us. The third act in particular is where the most heinous revelations of Lift are made aware to the viewer and it’s immediately followed by one hilarious gag regarding the different shades of green he paints his doors and his incredibly puerile pitch for Cash’s next move, punctuated by a claymation instructional video narrated by a naked cavewoman whose breasts the animator took great care to keep in exaggerated swaying. It’s not a strength I’m too defensive of, as it turns exhausting by the end of the film and its final note is quite a bit too glib about a situation that should be haunting, but it’s hard for me to mistake it as a crippling liability.
So is Sorry to Bother You unwieldy? Yes. But it’s not sloppy. That unwieldiness keeps the audience from feeling like their feet are planted on the floor. That’s because Sorry to Bother You doesn’t want you to feel comfortable, even if it wants you to have a good time and laugh along with its sharp and bitter messaging. Sorry to Bother You is a hodgepodge of contradictory intentions – scare you, amuse you, feel unreal, confront you with reality – that you wouldn’t expect a debut to succeed at, but by god does it will itself into success. If only we had more first-time directors jumping into the artform with this much bravery, regardless of how inexperienced they may be. Their experience might just be what makes them perfect for the job.