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Non-Review Review: Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You is striking, vibrant and vital. And essential.

Boots Riley’s directorial debut is a work of striking confidence, one that emerges almost perfectly formed with the skill and craft of a director much more experienced. Sorry to Bother You knows exactly what it is doing from one moment to the next, without any sense of hesitation of self-doubt. Sorry to Bother You is strikingly self-assured, maintaining an incredible level of high-energy across its runtime. This sustained propulsive dynamism in infectious, as the movie bounces from one big idea to the next.

Dialing up the social commentary.

The most obvious antecedents of Sorry to Bother You are the vibrant science-fiction social satires of the eighties, most notably the work of Paul Verhoeven that used a hyper-stylised aesthetic to depict the grosteque excesses of capitalism. Of course, the true horror of Sorry to Bother You lies in the sense of how the world itself has moved to close the gap over the past three decades. Although Sorry to Bother You unfolds primarily in a lightly fictionalised Oakland, the most unsettling aspect of the film is how close it feels to the modern status quo.

Sorry to Bother You is a work of bold vision.

Few satires are a patch on this.

Sorry to Bother You casts a very broad net, offering a visceral and vicious exploration of contemporary American popular culture. Although filtered through the lens of speculative fiction that provides a thin veneer of insulation, Riley is taking aim at some very big targets. Sorry to Bother You is a tale about the horrors of late capitalism and the exploitation of the working class. However, Sorry to Bother You is also a story about race in contemporary America, and the compromises inherent in trying to navigate that world.

Those are two big themes, particularly at this moment in time. More than that, those are two big themes that would easily trip up a more established and more experienced writer-director. Either of those themes could support a movie like this on its own terms. However, Riley cannily decides to focus Sorry to Bother You on the point of intersection between these two big ideas, to explore the horrors of capitalism as viewed through the prism of a disenfranchised minority. This is a very canny approach to this sort of story.

“For what profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?”
A great deal, actually.

Sorry to Bother You is a study of the sort of compromises that are necessary for members of minorities groups – especially African Americans – to survive in the modern world; the blind eye that they have to turn to petty racism, the horrific system in which they must become eager participants, the eagerness with which they must sell out their friends and families. The hero of Sorry to Bother You, the delightfully-named-given-the-subject-matter Cassius “Cash” Green, must not only sacrifice his own identity to get ahead, but wilfully blind himself to the suffering that he actively perpetuates; often against people in his situation.

Sorry to Bother You unfolds in a decidedly heightened version of Oakland, in a world that feels only a few steps removed from the modern world. As with the eighties science-fiction that it evokes, there is a strange sense that the monstrous world in Sorry to Bother You is not necessarily distorted, it is just more honest. This is the joy and the horror of these sorts of stories, the sense that in bringing these ideas to the fore, something horrifying is lurking just beneath the surface of a seemingly rational and ordered world.

A driving force in the world.

The film unfolds in a version of America that is in the thrall of gigantic corporations pursuing profits at all cost. Sorry to Bother You imagines a world where personal debt has been leveraged to create a new form of indentured servitude, creating a population who sign their lives away to work in “space-efficient dwellings” and to toil without financial compensation. The parallels – both historical and contemporary – are hard to ignore. Indeed, one character explicitly likens it to a more explicitly corporatised variation of the exploitation of prison labour, considering the comfort of “three hots and cot.”

Sorry to Bother You works so well because it takes the familiar and the contemporary, before turning the dial up to eleven. Many African Americans are already familiar with the concept of “passing” and the “white voice.” In fact, one character in the film even draws attention to Will Smith’s diction. However, Sorry to Bother You commits to the premise by literalising the concept. Lakeith Stanfield opens his mouth, but sounds just like David Cross. Omari Hardwick speaks, but the audience hears the voice of Patton Oswald.

Has a nice earring to it.

Riley has an incredibly visual imagination, and Sorry to Bother You works in part because Riley is so effective at literalising his underlying ideas. These touches are by turns large and small, but they are incredibly effective. An early example includes the manner in which Riley stylises the art of cold-calling, with Cassius literally dropping into the lives of the people that he is calling. It beautifully illustrates the discomfort of these sorts of telephone marketting conversations, in which a strange drops themselves into the lives of the person answering the call.

Sorry to Bother You is endlessly visually inventive, even its smaller moments. One decidedly low-key moment, relative to some of the film’s more ostentatious displays, involves tightly cropped shot of Cassius freaking out on the job that features a paper copier going wild in the background. As the tension mounts, paper fires everywhere and co-workers struggle to keep this minor-yet-escalating crisis under control, reflecting Cassius’ own mounting anxiety. At another point, as Cassius begins to earn money, his world literally expands and folds out around him, often within a single shot. It’s beautiful and imaginative.

Gotta get the paper.

However, for all its visual imagination, Sorry to Bother You is not a film that has a lot of time or patience for subtlety. This is perhaps for the best given the current political climate and the tensions that exist in the United States at the moment; there was a time for nuance and quiet satire, but this feels like a moment for broad and biting social commentary. The characters in the film often explicitly articulate the satirical intent of key plot points or decisions, in order to ensure that the audience is cognisant of what is actually being said.

Studying the latest work by local artist Detroit, one observer tries to parse the message being sent. “Maybe it says that capitalism is dehumanising?” he suggests. Detroit herself has little patience for such lofty equivocation. “Maybe it’s being literal,” she counters. It feels like Riley himself is engaging directly with his audience, drawing attention to the stated intent of Sorry to Bother You. This is not a film that exists as an abstract work in a vacuum. It is an angry call to arms struggling to articulate itself through that frustration.

Cashing out.

This is not to dismiss the smaller insights contained within the movie, which might be easier to miss than its broad and bold thesis statements. In particular, while its take on billionaire executive Steven Lift is very much in keeping with the portrayal of selfish capitalists in late eighties movies, Riley subtly tweaks the finer points of this particular cocaine-fueled monster. When Cassius discovers Lift’s evil (and frankly batsh!t insane) masterplan, Lift insists, “I didn’t want you to think that I was crazy, that I was doing this for no reason. This is perfectly rational.”

Of course, it isn’t perfectly rational. Once the finer points of Lift’s long-term plan are revealed, it is self-evidently both insane and immoral. It is also, very cleverly and carefully, seeded through the background of the film; it seems like Lift is motivated by his own weird fetish as much as any external logic. However, Lift is careful to couch his monstrosity in reasonable-sounding language, insisting very carefully and very strongly that his plan is not crazy and that it is rational. Lift is an update to a familiar eighties archetype. He is no longer simply the most powerful man in the room, he also insists that he is the smartest.

Lifting his spirits.

Sorry to Bother You makes some relatively sharp turns in its second half. With a midpoint reveal, the film embraces its serialism as more than just a visual aesthetic, incorporating into its internal plot mechanics. Given how consciously stylised the opening hour of Sorry to Bother You has been, it takes a lot to up the ante. That midpoint reveal seems likely to be a love-it-or-hate-it moment for audience members. It is hard to quantify the sort of visceral reaction that this development will provoke in audience members, but it is a testament to Riley that even that insane plot twist feels very much a part of the movie.

It would be tempting to dismiss the heightened surrealism of Sorry to Bother You as mere affectation, as a cynical packaging of familiar ideas in bright and poppy trappings to disguise some fundamental lack of focus or substance. However, the conscious abstraction of Sorry to Bother You serves a very clear purpose, as outlined by Squeeze when he explains why exposing Lift’s evil plans may not be enough to actually stop him. “If you’re shown a problem and have no idea what to do about it, you just accept it,” Squeeze tells Cassius.

Sorry to Bother You is a thesis statement on that idea. it presents a society that is recognisable and yet extrapolated, one which has accepted all manner of horrific problems in order to maintain a status quo. This is the heart of the anger in Sorry to Bother You, a deep frustration of the problems that the audience have accepted as part of their everyday life. There’s a palpable sense of despair within Sorry to Bother You, one implied by the awkward politeness of the title. How much would it take before people didn’t accept it? Before they weren’t sorry to bother others with their anger and suffering?

The answer, Sorry to Bother You suggests, is something truly grotesque.

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2 Responses

  1. I liked this a lot. I didn’t read any spoilers going in so the entire 3rd act caught me way off guard, which I enjoyed.

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