Release: Friday, July 6, 2018 (limited)
Written by: Boots Riley
Directed by: Boots Riley
Sorry to Bother You is the filmmaking début of Boots Riley, and the only thing it may be more than ambitious is strange. In its strangeness it is both brave and brilliant — the kind of pure cinematic experience we didn’t even realize we were missing until it became a reality. Kind of like Swiss Army Man from a couple years back, whose flatulence-driven plot still wafts through my mind.
Amazingly, that reality almost never was. Raymond “Boots” Riley, heretofore known for his community activism and anticapitalist views as channeled through the hiphop-funk group The Coup, was one Dave Eggers away from not being discovered. The award-winning novelist (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; The Circle), having been so impressed by the screenplay Riley had been carrying around with him, decided to publish it in a special issue of his quarterly literary magazine McSweeney’s. This was back in 2014. Then the Sundance shuffle happened, with established talent like Guillermo del Toro and Forest Whitaker offering mentorship and crucial funding, and at the age of 47 Riley found himself uniquely positioned to express his voice from an entirely different platform.
Sorry to bury the lede, but this is really why we are here. The Oakland, California native has a powerful, distinctive voice that simply must be heard. If comparisons help, think the righteous anger of Spike Lee spritzed with the idiosyncrasy of a Michel Gondry. The end result of a long and unlikely process is a blistering satire that doesn’t make a statement — it screams it, until it goes (and bear with me here) hoarse with rage. In this film voice isn’t just some intangible quality that informs the overall piece and every element within; it becomes a very literal role player.
The hustle begins in a garage that happens to double as Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield)’s bedroom. He and his fiancé Detroit (Tessa Thompson) are desperately behind on rent and dream of the day they can afford something a little nicer, a little less garage-y. To that end Cash heads off for an interview with a telemarketing company called RegalView, while Detroit goes to work as a sign-spinning advertiser on the streets of Oakland. She also moonlights as a Banksy-esque graffiti artist for The Left Eye, a grassroots movement that protests corporations like WorryFree who have elevated the commodification of human labor into an art form. Run by cocaine enthusiast Steve Lift (a smarmy Armie Hammer), WorryFree is a massively profitable conglomerate that hires employees to unpaid, life-term contracts in exchange for food, shelter and the most stylish work uniforms you’ve ever seen.
Although invigorated by his recent employment, Cash soon turns to despair when he struggles to make any sales, despite his obedience in sticking-to-the-script. With the help of Langston (Danny Glover), a more experienced coworker, he discovers the secret to success. All he has to do is hide his real identity and sound white, ideally like David Cross. Because of
company ageism narrative contrivance, it’s the young and eager who quickly ascends the ranks of RegalView, destined to land amongst the company’s elite as a “power caller.” (I would explain what that is but it actually sounds more mysterious if I don’t.)
Meanwhile, the workhorses in the cubicles down below, led by Squeeze (Steven Yuen) and Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), are starting to organize for better working conditions. Despite his initial involvement in the uprising, Cassius is nevertheless given that promotion, and finds himself having to choose between pursuing a life of greater comfort and supporting his friends fighting in the trenches. Sure, it’s pretty obvious which option he is going to choose. It’s the specifics of that choice that make this an adventure unlike any other. And so we pass through the same bizarre thresholds alongside Cash, both amused and disturbed by his actions (and sometimes the lack thereof).
With Sorry to Bother You (the film bears the name of The Coup’s sixth studio album, released in 2012 and based upon this very screenplay) Riley has created a reality parallel to our own in which the rules of society have a malleable property to them. He takes full advantage of the privileges of operating within the realm of magical realism. So many of the juiciest, most outrageous bits he simply can’t achieve in a more traditional comedy. The subversiveness begins with creative transitions featuring sales reps physically crashing into the living spaces of the customers they are calling, and ends in an uprising that feels mother!-esque with the way it so aggressively pursues the metaphorical.
Indeed, Sorry to Bother You hits a tipping point eventually, going from dark comedy to just plain . . . dark. Of course, it isn’t as nasty and antagonistic as anything Aronofsky has done, be they collaborations with Jennifer Lawrence or Jennifer Connelly. As far as satires go, Sorry to Bother You is right up there with the best of them. If you are listening to what the filmmaker is saying, even a little bit, then you are probably going to be leaving this one feeling as queasy as you are thrilled.
Recommendation: Sorry to Bother You is a modern satire that skewers so many aspects of modern American society. It isn’t just about race and class, it evaluates ambition and the kinds of sacrifices Becoming The Best requires. Perpetually forward-bounding with gusto and verve, with an intensely likable Lakeith Stanfield leading the charge, it’s a strange but powerful experience that you really shouldn’t miss out on — even when there is a percent chance greater than fifty you walk away from it feeling something other than purely amused.
Running Time: 105 mins.
Quoted: “If you beautiful perversions don’t shut the fuck up, I’ll turn you into glue!”
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