SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Director: Boots Riley
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, Robert Longstreet, Kate Berlant, Michael X. Sommers, Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker, the voices of David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Rosario Dawson, Lily James
MPAA Rating: (for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use)
Running Time: 1:45
Release Date: 7/6/18 (limited); 7/13/18 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 5, 2018
With his debut movie, writer/director Boots Riley has created a potently satirical version of the world. It's either the future or the result of some alternative history, but the specifics don't matter. Like the best satire, the world of Sorry to Bother You shows us the world as it is, only heightened to the point that it seems absurd.
The story is set in Oakland, California, where people of every class beneath the wealthy struggle to keep any sense of financial stability. Our hero lives in his uncle's garage, and the house attached to it is about to be foreclosed. Jobs are a rarity, and the only available ones are unfulfilling, low-pay, or, usually, both.
There's no freedom in such a life, and Riley's satiric coup is in the background—a company that promises a person a job and housing for life. The job is menial labor, of course, and the housing is a cramped room with stacks of bunkbeds filled with at least two people. One doesn't need to have a particular word attached to this concept and the imagery associated with it. We know slavery this explicit when we see it (One piece of advertising for the company's "job" program utilizes just about every terrible racial stereotype imaginable, just to drive the point home).
This is a world of unease and discomfort, and it's impossible not to see the connections to the real world, where certain companies are indeed offering housing and other amenities for their employees that make it so that workers don't have to leave their place of work. When reality comes this close to matching the satire, it should be clear that we have some real problems.
The movie is at its strongest in the first act, as it establishes this world and the very real dilemmas of its central characters. The issues here involve economic anxiety, matters of race, class disparity, and vulture-like corporate culture. It's funny in a rather despairing way, because this world has some answers to those problems. They're just the completely wrong answers, causing even more problems.
Where does one go from here? That's the central question for Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), who takes a job with a telemarketing company to make ends meet and hustles his way to the top of that world. It's also the major question for Riley, who sets all of the pieces of a compelling, relevant, and twisted satire about the modern world in place. As the movie struggles to find any purpose or meaning beyond its initial inspiration, Riley begins to rely on the increasing absurdity of his story. The movie takes this world and these characters to place we would never expect, but it seems to be the consequence of a filmmaker who doesn't quite know where to take his material.
After taking the telemarketing gig, Cassius struggles in making sales and, hence, getting paid. A co-worker (played by Danny Glover) suggests that Cassius should use his "white voice" to keep potential customers on the line. It works, and soon enough, Cassius is being eyed for a promotion to the company's elite group of "power callers."
Some of the other details include Cassius relationship with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a rebellious and struggling artist who worries he'll become a sell-out, and an organized protest against the company by Squeeze (Steven Yeun), a roaming union organizer who thinks Cassius possesses the qualities of a born leader. Cassius' brief internal conflict is between his ambition to make something of himself and his responsibility to do the right thing by the people in his socioeconomic sphere. In Cassius' mind, the plight of the worker doesn't stand a chance against the prospects of a fancy car, a downtown apartment, and a big, steady paycheck.
The early parts of the movie are observant in understanding these characters and, at times, quite provocative in the revealing of this world. Riley's screenplay establishes a rich promise in the ways that the social, economic, and racial concerns of these characters and the elements in the background intersect, providing a vision that deals with race but mostly focuses on class. The movie presents a nightmarish version of pure capitalism, in which every part of society—from the companies to the police—exist to keep people uncomfortable enough to give up everything for the bottom line but hopeful enough to keep fighting to climb the ladder.
The movie's thematic downfall is subtle at first, as the jokes become more random and the story loses its focus (Key elements, such as the "white voice," are just taken for granted), and then quite apparent, as Cassius arrives at a party at the home of the company's CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). There's a revelation here that comes as a shock and takes the story into the realm of science-fiction. It's not necessarily too much, mind you, but it certainly feels that way, considering how little Riley actually does with the information.
That's the problem with satire. It needs focus to make its points, but Riley's approach is far too scattershot for some totality of vision to arrive. Sorry to Bother You is all promise and little payoff.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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