Friday, August 17, 2018

Sorry to Bother You

Directed by Boots Riley.

2018. Rated R, 111 minutes.
Lakeith Stanfield
Tessa Thompson
Armie Hammer
Danny Glover
Jermaine Fowler
Steven Yeun
Omari Hardwick
Patton Oswalt
Kate Berlant

Right away, Sorry to Bother You lets you know that subtlety will be in short supply. Our hero, the allegorically named Cassius Green (Stanfield) goes on a job interview. He not only has his resume with him, he also brought along an "Employee of the Month" award from a previous job as well as a youth sports trophy. The employer lets him know that even though his efforts are ridiculous, they prove he can read and speak English. Since the interview is for a telemarketing job, that's good enough. Shortly after being hired, Cassius, Cash for short, starts hearing about the benefits of being one of the company's prized but mysterious Power Callers. He starts working towards that becoming one using some tricks of the trade taught to him by a veteran co-worker (Glover). Meanwhile, other co-workers including his girlfriend Detroit (Thompson), are pushing hard to unionize and threatening to strike. On top of all this, there's a nationwide debate over Worry Free, a massive corporation that provides lifetime employment and free room and board to anyone it hires.

Boots Riley writes and directs. It's his very first feature wearing either of those hats. In some regards, it's easy to spot his inexperience. First, he takes lots of his stylistic cues from Spike Lee. That's not necessarily a bad thing, just evidence his own style hasn't fully evolved yet. Second, he puts so much on the screen that just shouldn't work. A more seasoned director might shy away from such things because any one of them could be deemed as too much for the audience to handle. The combined weight of them all should reduce the film to a pile of rubble. However, Riley directs his film confidently enough to pull the various strands of his story together so seamlessly they feel organic, even when there is an obvious sharp turn. He also packs it full of metaphors. This makes StBY a deeply layered movie. Nearly every frame shown and sentence uttered is worthy of examination. As of this writing, I've only seen it once. I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing it again to see how much I've missed.

One thing I certainly have not missed is the acting. Lakeith Stanfield is flat out terrific in the lead. He makes it clear that the predicaments Cash finds himself in cause him both outer and inner turmoil without resorting to manic histrionics. Despite so much going on around him, the character is still a bit of a blank slate upon which the expectations of others are thrust. This is precisely what the film needs to engender sympathy within the audience. He also helps keep things grounded for as long as possible even though the world around him is spiraling out of control at ever-increasing speeds. That isn't to say he's got it all together. He clearly does not. What makes it all work is that he thinks he does. We plainly see the foolishness of his confidence. We want to warn him, but can't. We're stuck rooting for him to figure it all out.

To the role of Detroit, Tessa Thompson brings the same defiant strength that has become her calling card, while wearing some of the fiercest earrings to ever grace a pair of lobes. She also displays the militancy shown in Dear White People. Never at any point is she simply "the girlfriend." In many ways, along with Squeeze (Yeun), serves as the personification of Cash's conscience. She's there to laud or loathe whatever Cash is doing at every turn. This makes her one of the film's driving forces. The mounting of Detroit's disappointment in Cash culminates in one of the film's (purposely) most uncomfortable moments. Thompson plays it with a smoldering resilience forcing the audience to reckon with her point of view. It also helps set the stage for the madness to come.

The true madness of StBY is that it's not as far-fetched as some of the more outrageous occurrences would have you believe. All those metaphors I spoke of come together to form a sharp social satire. 2017's Get Out is the most obvious comparison given it's pretty clear that movie inspired this one. However, StBY casts a much wider net. Racism is definitely a target, but classism has just as big a bull's eye on its back. The very idea of capitalism comes under attack as Worry Free is yet another evil cinematic corporation willing to do anything in the name of profit. Armie Hammer is the perfectly smarmy face of that corporation, by the way. All of this is brilliantly wrapped within Cash's search for identity.

As much as I love this movie, I can't recommend it to everyone. Calling back to Get Out again, this movie also injects science fiction into its final act to evoke a sense of horror. What makes Get Out more accessible is that it's clearly a horror flick from the outset in spite of its humorous tactics. Here, and this is where StBY falters, we're set up for a more straightforward comedy, one that is really only funny in spots. When we get to it, the tonal shift might cause whiplash. It's at precisely this point, and you'll know it when it happens, you will decide if this movie has pulled you in or completely repelled you. For a number of people in the theater with me when I saw it, it was clearly the latter. For them, the movie did crumble under its own heft. It doesn't help that, as I said earlier, multiple viewing are required to fully get it, a detriment to many. Put short, Sorry to Bother You feels like a Spike Lee joint had a baby with a David Lynch mind-bender.


  1. "...a Spike Lee joint had a baby with a David Lynch mind-bender."

    I don't think I've seen a better summation of this film than that. I loved this movie so much, and I'm glad you did too. It's so brilliant and bracing and just on fire with ideas. Yeah, it's a bit of a mess, but that was kinda the point and I was always engaged in what was happening. Definitely going to be a defining film of 2018 for me.

    1. Thanks!

      2018 is shaping up to be a year with a lot of films that have a lot to say. This one is unique enough that it will certainly be one I always identify as one of this year's defining cinematic moments.

  2. I really wanted to see this but timing prevented me from doing so as it came and went at my local multiplex with a lot of films that aren't traditional blockbusters. Plus, I think I saw Boots Riley live one time with his Street Sweeper Social Club side project when they opened for NIN and Jane's Addiction in 2009. They were great.

    1. I had no idea he was involved in music at all until a few days ago. I'm curious about his music. Hope you get to see the movie soon. It's got a lot to sink your teeth into.

  3. This sounds like a good movie despite the mess and you had me with your last line:)

  4. I really like what you said about the final act, and I couldn't agree more. I think that's why I wasn't a huge fan of the final whiplash as you said. Other than that, I totally enjoyed the rest of the movie. But, you're spoton when you say the final act isn't for everyone. Great post!

    1. Thanks! This might sound weird, but even though no one was talking (that I heard), you could feel the sudden confusion and disappointment in the theater at THAT moment. This was confirmed by some of the conversations I overheard on the way out of the theater.

  5. Sounds very promising. Nice write up. And those are ear rings for sure haha.

    1. Hope you check it out. And there several other crazy pairs of earrings she wears.