Unbridled Creativity: No one is Safe from Riley’s Wackadoo Satire … Himself Included
There is nothing subtle in Boots Riley‘s Sorry To Bother You. A singular, wildly inventive, socio-political satire that ultimately loses its grip on the reins, the film is part sci-fi/fantasy dystopia, part workplace comedy, and all political commentary. Given Riley’s well-established anti-establishment background, you can expect shock & awe — but this first feature effort is mesmerizingly inventive only up to the moment where it explodes in your face. This explosion is also an implosion: we’re shocked, but not for all the right reasons. Weirdness for the sake of weirdness, minus the payoff. Despite flashes of ingenuity throughout, this off-the-walls stick-it-to-the-man lampoon never lives up to its fantastic first half.
This film takes place in a not-so-alternate present day where corporate drones reign supreme and street art activists rebel. Omnipresent ads promote ‘Worry Free Living’ – essentially voluntary slavery, with the in-universe equivalent promise of ‘40-acres and a mule.’ Kind of 1984 meets Do The Right Thing. Here’s how it evolves: we follow middle-class everyman Cassius Green (Atlanta’s never better Lakeith Stanfield) who lives in his Uncle’s garage (vociferous Terry Crews) and needs a job. His girlfriend Detroit (a commanding Tessa Thompson) spends her time on provocative performance art-turned-activism, playing foil to the film’s consumer contingent. Cassius finds his, er, calling as a telemarketer when he learns he can sell sand to a beach … all by making his voice sound ‘white.’ (David Cross and Patton Oswalt provide the ‘white’ voices in comically nasal manner.)
Pretty soon, Cassius ascends to the top of the corporate ladder: wearing suits, riding golden elevators, bonding with white coworkers over squash. He gets invited to orgies by the company’s douchey CEO Steve Lift (a hilarious Armie Hammer). Before he knows it, Cassius has turned a blind eye to his friends—and his company’s dark underbelly—all in favor of a bigger pay-check. (Cash-is-Green. Anyone?) Watching Cassius ‘break bad’ is a delight. Even as he turns selfish, Stanfield stays relatable through a blend of vulnerability and comedic timing.
Beyond Lakeith, a strong cast brings humanity to an otherwise surreal experience. Besides those already mentioned, highlights include Steven Yeun as Squeeze, an outspoken coworker who leads the strike to get unionized. Also Danny Glover, Omari Hardwick, and Kate Berlant deliver funny bit-parts.
Sorry to Bother You’s out-of-left-field comedy is its strongest suit. Each performance feels consistently off-kilter—as if every actor has been possessed by Riley’s wackadoo humor. Yes, it’s hit-or-miss; but the film is totally unapologetic. More often than not, the jokes stick the landing: an impossibly long elevator code; a flattery-off between characters; an un-woke rap for an all-white audience. And even better, because the good jokes are so on point, the missed punchlines elicit more FOMO than groans. It’s also chock full of eye candy; the production design is is richly-realized: a capitalist America so kitschy it begs derision. Characters wear tacky ‘80s-style businesswear; they all watch a game show called “I Got the Shit Kicked out of Me.” The whole thing peaks with a Tim Burton-esque orgy hosted by the company’s CEO. Plus a funky, often disquieting soundtrack by the Tune-Yards keeps it weird.
Echoing Michel Gondry’s fondness for the surreal (the film even has a ‘Michel Dongry’ joke), Riley employs inventive editing and in-camera FX. Cassius and his desk chair plummet into a client’s living room; another client passes him a joint over the phone. Expedient cuts allow characters to walk between sets from one scene to another. It does get confusing when dialogue heard in one scene actually belongs to the next, but it keeps us on our toes. The most impressive standalone moment is a montage of in-camera wizardry: Cassius’s swanky new apartment builds itself in front of his eyes.
However: despite the visual bravado, the film relies too heavily on eccentricity to maintain a compelling arc. Even as it escalates, the comedy gets tired. David Cross’s ‘white voice’ is priceless right up until we’ve heard it too often (especially because Cross’s voiceover is poorly synced to Stanfield’s performance). Even worse, it favors heavy-handed parody over deeper truth: a character jumps into a literal tank of fecal matter; a food fight-as-art is featured at a chic gallery-opening. Is Riley mocking the very artistic-activism he preaches? It would be one thing if this film went all-out Dalí, but its narrative—including a half-baked love affair subplot—tries too hard to make us care.
Idiosyncratic to a fault, this film is unlike any other. Both verbally and visually, it delivers adroit political commentary and some really big laughs; its ambitious premise, stellar cast and luscious production design set up what could be a cult-hit home run. But sadly, the film flies afoul, playing one note in constant crescendo until we realize that crazy is only going to be explained by more crazy.
If Sorry To Bother You were being graded on sheer spunk, it would be a knockout—but this is a game of diminishing returns. We need films that take risks, but we also need clarity. Even for art that emphasizes cause over story, we need to understand what we’re rooting for … and in this case, despite all the brilliance, Riley’s ultimate message is never fully made clear.
Reviewed on January 20th at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival – U.S. Dramatic Competition. 105 Minutes