Director: Boots Riley
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Jermaine Fowler, Steven Yeun, Danny Glover, Terry Crews, David Cross (voice), Patton Oswalt (voice)
Words – Nathan Scatcherd
I want to be able to recommend Sorry to Bother You wholeheartedly. Its brand of dark absurdist comedy should be right up my proverbial street, with a wild left turn about midway through which, on paper, seems equal parts surreally hilarious and horrifying, a mix I often go for. But while the film announces its first time writer-director Boots Riley (known outside of this for his activism, and his music as MC for hip hop outfits The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club) as a bold voice who undoubtedly has real film-making talent, it comes off as just unfocused enough to ultimately feel unsatisfying.
The story takes place in a world which, at least initially, is just slightly left-field from our own. Lakeith Stanfield is Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (hur hur), who is living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend, a performance artist and sign-twirler named Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Unemployed and several months behind on rent, he takes a job as a telemarketer for a company with apparently two distinct tiers – those doing ‘small time’ sales on the main floor, and the mysterious ‘Power Callers’ on the upper floor, who appear to sell far more expensive products for astronomically higher wages. Cash struggles in the job until an older colleague (Danny Glover) teaches him how to use a ‘white voice’, which is exactly what it sounds like; the voice of a white man (David Cross), conveying an air of affluence and chumminess which increases his sales by a large degree. Soon he is invited upstairs with the Power Callers… and the Gilliam/Gondry-esque strangeness which has been building steadily through the first act ramps up and blossoms into some genuinely bizarre territory.
There is much here to admire, but the film’s satirical swipes at corporate culture, ‘selling out’ and modern day capitalist wage-slavery feel a little too scattershot to land consistently. It seems to want to take on all of these things while commenting on race, class, television, the superficiality of the art world, and unethical medical experimentation, subsequently feeling a little overstuffed (and overlong). Good satire needs a firm, clear target; you have to know exactly what you want to eviscerate. Sorry to Bother You feels like it suffers from the ‘first film’ problem of taking on too much – throwing everything at the wall at once, landing some shots but whiffing others.
Riley has made a film with verve, style and some moments of enjoyably twisted humour, and the performances are strong across the board. Lakeith Stanfield and Armie Hammer particularly impress as two completely opposing forces – Stanfield the relatable, down to earth struggler and Hammer the comically overblown face of monstrous capitalism, a coke-snorting sociopath. It’s a shame the film can’t seem to settle on a subject to really focus its absurdist ire on, and as such ends up feeling somewhat corpulent.
Sorry to Bother You is genuinely impressive as a first film in particular, and it undoubtedly has a lot on its mind, but therein actually lies its (admittedly quite admirable) problem; it wants to say more than it reasonably can while still remaining cogent.