Boots Riley | 111 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R
It felt like everyone was on about Sorry to Bother You early this year, after it was released in the US in July. It’s taken ’til now to make it to UK screens — I don’t know if that was a conscious delay, or if the outpouring of recommendations from critics and audiences on social media had something to do with creating demand for distribution. Anyway, it’s fortunate that, as a small movie, most of the discussion (that I saw) was about urging people to see it and not giving away the twist (naturally, this review is equally spoiler-free), because it is indeed a helluva turn to come across unaware. As for the rest of the movie, well, I was less convinced.
Set in a like-our-world-but-not-quite present day Oakland, the film centres around Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a down-on-his-luck chap who lives in his uncle’s garage with his artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He manages to land a lowly job as a telemarketer, but struggles to sell anything. As his equally unsuccessful colleagues attempt to unionise, Cash discovers the key to the job and is soon on his way up the company, where there are dark secrets to be discovered…
That’s the simple version, anyway. First-time writer-director Boots Riley clearly has a lot on his mind, and it seems he wanted to say it all in this one film. The unifying theme seems to be “mega-corporations treat their workers like slaves and will go to extraordinary lengths to exploit them”, which is a worthwhile point but hardly a revelatory one. In the film, the concept is primarily satirised by the company Worryfree, which offers customers a home, employment, and food for life, in exchange for living in their facilities, working their jobs, eating their food, and not getting paid because they’re providing all you need. As a business concept you can kinda see the appeal, actually, but obviously it’s a form of slavery really. Capitalism is bad, y’all.
Naturally, with a black writer-director and black main cast, there are connections to be drawn out to history and the present black experience, and here the film finds somewhat more subtle and fertile ground. For example, the key to success in business turns out to be for Cash to use his “white voice” when selling — sounding literally like a white man, to the extent that Riley has these scenes dubbed by a white actor (in Cash’s case, David Cross; other characters’ white voices include Patton Oswalt and Lily James). As I say, it’s only “somewhat” subtle, but it’s effective. The film’s best scene, for my money, sees Cash attend a party thrown by Worryfree’s founder (Armie Hammer, perfectly cast), who urges Cash to rap — because all black guys can rap, right? Cash can’t. He tries. It’s painful. Then he hits upon an idea… I shall say no more (partly because I’d just have to censor it), but it’s both hilarious and true.
As for the aforementioned big twist, it’s absolutely barmy and out of left-field. Its utter craziness I have no problem with, but for me the film seems to fall apart after that point, as if including such a batshit insane idea was felt to be enough. Riley doesn’t seem to quite know where to go with it, except, frankly, some pretty obvious places. Arguably, the twist is too out there — it’s shocking and funny at first, but it completely disconnects the film from reality (and the connection was a little loose in the first place, thanks to the way all other parts are satirically presented). It makes the bad guys into cartoon villains with a crazy plan, rather than the scheming corporate overlords we recognise from real life. There’s plenty of other stuff in the film that doesn’t have 100% fidelity to reality, but they work in the name of satire. The twist isn’t really satire, it’s barminess for the sake of barminess; and in that sense I’m down with it, but it also means it somewhat undermines the film’s satirical goals, and that’s a shame.
While the finale might be the most obvious example, this lack of focus permeates the film, with scenes that are a total aside or subplots that go literally nowhere. Perhaps the most egregious example is a mystery VIP room in the shitty bar the characters drink in. It’s featured in one early scene, doesn’t introduce any characters or plots, and isn’t related to any of the film’s themes — it just is; a sketch-like vignette of silliness. Most viewers probably forget about it, even, because it occurs so early on and has literally nothing to do with anything else that happens, but that’s exactly what’s wrong with it, and why it should probably have been cut.
Riley clearly has a surfeit of ideas, which sometimes works to the film’s merit — there are effective, memorable visuals and concepts, a few solid characters (Stanfield is great as just an ordinary guy getting swept along by shit; the kind of person most of us would be, I feel), and a bunch of funny lines and exchanges. But there are so many different things all being rammed onto the screen at once that it becomes a tumult of stuff that the first-timer in charge can’t quite control (as a counterpoint to Stanfield, the regularly-brilliant Thompson struggles gamely to bring some depth to her thinly-sketched girlfriend/performance artist character, and can only partially succeed).
Sorry to Bother You seems to lack the behind-the-scenes acumen to make everything come together as a single, focused movie. It’s certainly an interesting film (well, apart from when I began to get a bit bored, frankly, as it dragged itself through that surprisingly predictable finale), and I can see why it got Film Twitter talking back on its US release, but I don’t think it coalesces into a fully satisfying whole.
Sorry to Bother You makes its belated debut in UK cinemas tomorrow.