Sorry to Bother You is the sort of film that wants to do so much, and delights so much in each thing that it attempts to do, that it is hard not to get caught up in the manic world and unique artistic voice. On the other hand, the further you go into unpacking the densely-packed funhouse of oddities in the film, the harder it is to wrap your head around why you enjoyed the viewing experience in the first place.
To be clear, it is difficult to explore this funhouse without delving into crucial plot details that are better experienced untarnished, as predictability is a word that holds no meaning in the final third of the film. But there is something that falls into the life of Lakeith Stanfield’s protagonist telemarketer Cassius Green—you’ll know it when you see it—that complicates the theme-driving metaphors to the point of blindsiding confusion.
These metaphors are already somewhat confusing. Not in the sense that they are hard to pick up on—some are ultimately too blunt for their own good—but in the sense that there are too many ideas at play to pin down writer-director-musician Boots Riley’s central narrative concern.
The central concern of Cassius Green is money. Living in the garage of his uncle (Terry Crews), he is four months behind on rent. His car, which he can only afford to put 40 cents of gas on at any given time, sputters smoke from under the hood and has broken, string-activated windshield wipers. What is more, his uncle needs that rent money if they want to keep the house.
From this source of conflict, the film explores lower-middle class tensions in employment environments where corporations favor themselves over their workers. The telemarketing firm at which Green is hired favors its top floor “power callers” over its first floor encyclopedia peddlers, the latter of which are working toward a labor union. In the background, the presence of a factory housing facility known as WorryFree looms; it is a live-in job that looks more like a prison than a business.
So Sorry to Bother You is a takedown of 21st century capitalism in favor of a more humanist approach.
However, it is also a more zoomed-in look at the experience of black Americans in this environment. Code switching plays an important role in the film, with comedian David Cross taking over the role of Green’s voice while he is on the phone with potential buyers.
It is also a searing indictment of media, particularly its increased incompetence and decreased attention span.
It is also about the merging of the individual and the larger causes the individual is a part of, particularly looking at how that merging can have a variable amount of ease depending on the goals of the individual.
Each concept on its own has a depth of substance from which to draw. As combined in this film, though, it comes off jumbled and haphazard. The media angle comes off like slapstick parody. The code switching is an under-explored yet clever device. The capitalist criticism makes for a functional satire. And the individual-cause relationship is only explored as one of many sources of conflict for Green.
The film is stuffed to the gills with jokes, anti-jokes, and social commentary. Riley rarely takes a breath to let a point of criticism fully blossom. The hierarchy of power at Green’s workplace, and how he navigates that, is brilliantly realized. But once he gets a glimpse at the top, the tower comes tumbling down.
This is not to say that the sharp left turn that the plot takes in the final third is not commendable. If nothing else, it is insanely ambitious. The unpredictable nature of Sorry to Bother You is one of its strongest suits. Riley does an exquisite job at constructing a world where just enough is off-kilter to make you buy the insanity that has yet to come.
The same thing that makes the film seem untenable—the over-stuffed, cluttered world of ideas and fantastical elements—also makes it mesmerizing. As we watch Stanfield navigate the strangeness—he gives another unique and wholly-engaging performance in this film—we are provided a creative experience that feels fresh and inventive.
Even if you don’t find yourself buying into the strangeness, it is hard to not be swept up in the blustering, dynamic elements of style. The deliberately artificial comic voiceovers. The literal dropping of Stanfield into the homes of his callers. The distinct musical atmosphere provided by Coup (a group fronted by Riley) and Tune-Yards. The endless supply of home-made earrings and clothing of the performance artist Detroit (Tessa Thompson), which feature bold, badass statements such as “The Future is Female Ejaculation.”
There is a lot to like about Sorry to Bother You. There is certainly enough to keep your attention rapt. Boots Riley is a voice worth hearing with a unique way of speaking through the camera. With this film, he might just be saying too much at once. But too many good things is better than none at all.
Sorry to Bother You: B+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)