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First Look Review - SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

sorry to bother you review
A telemarketer rises through the ranks of a sinister company.

Review by John Bennett

Directed by: Boots Riley

Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Armie Hammer, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun

sorry to bother you poster

America is in something of a gilded age at the moment. Without getting too preachy or wonky, one could see how the GOP’s tax cuts have disproportionately benefitted a tiny, already-rich-and-powerful portion of the population. Other perceptive writers have made convincing arguments that the U.S. does a pretty pitiful job of prosecuting white-collar crime. Given that these social circumstances significantly hamper equality of opportunity in the States, it’s encouraging that a daffy piece of cinéma engagé like Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You has the legs to reach a wide audience.

Riley’s debut feature is an Orwellian farce whose serious, relevant ideas are wittily disseminated via a playful style and an inventive narrative. If a little more attention had been paid to the organisation of its somewhat scattershot second half, Sorry to Bother You would easily be one of the finest films of 2018. As it stands, Riley’s film is an entertaining, socially minded curio that - while falling just short of brilliance - is certainly worth seeking out.


sorry to bother you review

In an unspecified future, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield, giving a great harried performance) is down on his luck. He has a hard time making rent on his small apartment (a garage converted into a bedroom), and his aging car could, at any moment, break down for the last time. Standing by him through his financial hardships is his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a happy-go-lucky artist interested in post-colonial themes and political activism.

Cassius’ luck begins to change when he gets a job making sales cold-calls at a telemarketing firm, whose mantra constantly admonishes employees to “stick to the script.” With the help of an older employee (Danny Glover), Cassius quickly rises through the ranks of the banal (yet mysterious) company until he reaches the professional pinnacle of “power seller.”

As Cassius steadily abandons ideals and identity, his close friends and former coworkers - Detroit among them - begin to organise and demand better working conditions. Soon, Cassius finds himself high in the ranks of WorryFree, a gargantuan company run by the charismatic Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). But WorryFree has dark secrets, and Cassius ends up in the crosshairs of a battle between the greed of a company that makes him rich and the firm, principled resistance of his newly unionised friends.


sorry to bother you review

Any brief description of Sorry to Bother You’s complicated story cannot adequately convey the unique strangeness of the film’s tone and imagery. The dystopia that Riley has created is uncanny in its resemblance to contemporary life. Not unlike Alex Cox’s Repo Man, Sorry to Bother You only relies on the slightest sci-fi variations on contemporary life. What’s more, these variations are not (for the most part) governed by sets of contrived rules and gimmicks - the kinds that sap so many dystopian films of their mystery and menace. Riley achieves this tone in Sorry to Bother You by peppering Cassius’s story with moments of surreal originality and wit. Detroit’s many pairs of large earrings - most of which tell little political riddles in big blocky text - are lovingly singled out in ethereal close-ups, as if they were not designed but rather magically appeared to serve as enigmatic meta-commentaries on the film’s story at any given moment. In humorous moments reminiscent of Repo Man’s creepy televangelist, Sorry to Bother You fleetingly shows us moments of a popular TV show entitled “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me,” a hilariously low-budget game show that subtly underscores the desensitisation to atrocity from which the world of Sorry to Bother You appears to suffer.

In one of the film’s most perfect coups de théâtre, Cassius - an African-American - learns to use a “white voice” in order to make more sales. After being promoted, Cassius meets Mr. __________(Omari Hardwick, playing a character whose anonymity brings to mind a character from another absurdist comedy: Major _________ de Coverly of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22). Mr.  ___________ also uses a “white voice.” As the film progresses, the “white voices” (humorously furnished by David Cross and Patton Oswalt) begin to override the characters’ authentic voices, a narrative move that comments perceptively and bitingly on the white-washing that many American institutions require before one can participate in them.

These kinds of touches, along with many others, accomplish two great feats. First, such details deftly level swift stinging attacks on a culture where almost everything (and everyone) is for sale, no matter the ramifications. Second, they help to construct a cinematic world that’s consistently funny and surprising without condescending or straining to gratuitously spell everything out to an audience.

sorry to bother you review

Unfortunately, Sorry to Bother You doesn’t fully sustain all of its strengths. In its second half, Sorry to Bother You loses a bit of its satirical bite due to the erosion of some of the things that made the first half so exciting: its politics become more heavy handed, its story organisation becomes more slack, and its mysterious aura fades slightly. There’s a major twist at the beginning of the film’s last act (whose details I’ll refrain from discussing here) that involves Cassius and Steve Lift. The twist, while shocking, comes out of left field and hijacks much of the rest of the film’s narrative, knocking its inventive world slightly off its axis. This has consequences for other moments in the film as well. Eventually, the TV show “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me” transforms from a funny dystopian tone-setter to a slightly contrived plot point whose former comedic litheness becomes bogged down by its attempts to be brute-force.

Ultimately, there are plenty of good ideas in the film’s second half, but those ideas would have been more impactful if the tone of their presentation and their integration into the mesh of the narrative had been more finely calibrated. When thinking about Sorry to Bother You’s flaws, however, one should remember this: the film’s missteps are results of risks that Riley takes, which is ultimately commendable.

Without a doubt, Riley has a lot of talent as a filmmaker. Crucially, he has assembled a solid team to deliver this mostly-solid debut. Stanfield’s hangdog performance allows us to empathise with both his initial financial plight and his subsequent moral dilemma. As the film’s moral compass, Thompson is radiant and likeable (even when she, too, has her moments of inner conflict). In supporting roles, the perennially winning Glover and exceptional Steven Yeun lend their comedic abilities to the film as pro-union employees of the soul-sucking telemarketing firm. Doug Emmet’s playful, colorful cinematography enhances the film’s otherworldliness. In the future, if Riley is able to continue to draw out great work from a great team, and if he is able to retain his capacity for humour, invention and social commentary while clarifying his storytelling, his next project may be even more exciting.

Sorry to Bother You is in UK/ROI cinemas December 7th.



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