The directorial debut of Oakland rapper Boots Riley, “Sorry to Bother You” is a surreal science fiction comedy about a man who falls into the role of freedom fighter after discovering the human cost of his corporate job, using the tools of gentrification to enslave people into workhorses.
If the trailer for the movie didn’t convey any of that to you, don’t worry, because through unique editing, establishing clever storytelling parables, and a cavalcade of brilliant performances, the true nature of the film sneaks up on you by somehow managing to hide in plain sight.
Desperately resisting the urge to spoil, the tale of Cash Green’s rise to the top of a corporate ladder from a low level telemarketing temp after mastering the usage of his “white voice” to build a future for his family and his girlfriend tosses a lot of surreal imagery at its viewer representing aspects of modern society at their most logical extremes. The layers behind the visual symbolism of the film’s screenplay comes across as the kind of thing that you would get if you let Darren Aronofsky and Jordan Peele co-direct a script written by Donald Glover.
From the very concept of a black man making it to the top of a corporate chain through his “white voice” only to be forced to fall back on his blackness at the behest of the white host at the party — leading to a punchline almost too real to be hilarious if you’ve ever been the token black guy at a white party — to the increasingly malicious face of gentrification showing itself to be a dehumanizing evil that exploits issues of class imposed by society for the better of the economic upper class binging on excess while entry level workers struggle to keep roofs over their heads in scenes of satire reminiscent of “Robocop’s” Detroit, the film’s surreal visual palette oozes satire at every corner.
“Sorry to Bother You” is so firmly planted in magic realism that it can almost become disorienting as to what exactly is actually happening, but its grounding in the struggles of anybody that’s had to work a low-level day job in the last decade and its ability to shine a light on the attributes of human behavior that allow institutional corruption to take hold and strangle the life out of the society it was built to serve is so biting yet hilarious that you never get lost in the fray.
Lakeith Stanfield headlines the film masterfully in a role that could easily have collapsed if played too straight or too buffoonish, but he strikes a perfect balance between a man that just wants his basics covered, while also fearful of losing what little he has, causing him to spiral into existential crisis to show the brilliance within him waiting to be realized. He’s not alone in maintaining that masterful balance either, as Tessa Thompson more or less secures her position as one of the most versatile young actresses that’s only starting to get more of the work that she deserves and Armie Hammer, taking a step back from his unfortunately leading man misfires to play an antagonist so cartoonish yet brilliantly on point as “the man of the system,” that I hope this is the beginning of a renaissance for him on the comedic circuit.
Backed by strong performances all around, a biting and well delivered social message, and downright ballsy filmmaking that’s not afraid to take a true chance in terms of content and presentation, the only true downfall of “Sorry to Bother You” is that its ambitions can occasionally exceed its own grasp.
It’s a film that’s definitely daring enough to call the “Get Out” of 2018, but certainly lacking the same level of polish. Boots Riley’s willingness to experiment with style to the benefit of his story and storytelling is certainly appreciated and doesn’t go unnoticed, but a better balance with editing would have done wonders for the movie’s overall impact, along with another pass at the script to tighten up a worthwhile but substantially less effective final third.
The movie may be far from perfect, but if you constantly complain about the lack of fresh ideas on the big screen while taking snipes at the vapid nature of typical Hollywood releases, you owe it to yourself to see this movie — no exceptions. “Sorry to Bother You” is one of the best movies of the year on sheer factor of originality and impact alone.
4 out of 5
Graduating from Texas A&M University—Commerce with a bachelor's degree in News and Editorial Journalism, Jordan Wright has lived most of his adult life professionally critiquing films, from major blockbusters to indie dramas, and has no intentions of stopping.