Movie Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” is an edgy, topical film that fails miserably. Instead of precision targeting, it throws bombs everywhere. Was that a target? Did he mean to hit it? And did he? Or is it just wounded? The movie becomes anarchic and sloppy. The tone becomes sloppy. Are we supposed to laugh at this scene or be horrified? Maybe more accurate: I’m horrified, but why do I get the feeling it’s being played for laughs?
Certain white critics, I’m sure, will fall all over themselves in praise.
A banana in the tailpipe
Lakeith Stanfield (the “Get out!” guy in “Get Out”) plays Cassius “Cash” Green, a down-on-his-luck black dude living in his uncle’s garage in Oakland in the near future. Well, “down on his luck.” He’s sleeping with Detroit (Tessa Thompson), so it’s not all bad. She’s a performance artist whose day job is twirling a sign on a street corner. She does this at night, too. That confused me. Are there nighttime sign twirlers? She doesn’t seem bugged by her job, either. I guess as long as she’s got her art? But of course we only see 15 seconds of sign twirling. Try that for eight hours and see if you’re as chipper as Tessa Thompson by the end.
There are similar disconnects throughout the film. At one point, Cash is flipping TV channels. He’s got three options:
- An infomercial for WorryFree, a workplace where you work, eat, and sleep. Everything is provided but you have no rights; you’ve signed your life away to survive. Its CEO is Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).
- A game show called “I Got The Shit Kicked Out of Me,” in which contestants get beaten up to win cash and prizes. It’s “Fear Factor” without the wit. It’s for people for whom “Jackass” was too complicated.
- The news.
And that’s it. Three options? To keep the population docile, opiated, don’t you want many, many options? Like the obscene amount we have today? Why down to three? Is this 1971? Is it indicative of the limits in this reality or of Riley’s imagination?
Most everything in this reality is limited in scope—particularly available jobs, so Cash goes for one in telemarketing at RegalView. It sucks until an old hand, Langston (Danny Glover), tells him to use his “white voice.” When Cash objects, saying he doesn’t sound particularly “black," Langston clarifies: The “white voice” is the one that assumes everything will go your way. And it turns out Cash is a natural! But the effect, dubbed by David Cross, is odd—like a slightly better Hong Kong flick. Plus I didn’t buy the concept. That’s the voice of success? Nasal, polite, and enthused in a 1950s prep-school way? It sounds like an Eddie Murphy bit from the ’80s. At one point, the voice uses “chum” to mean “friend.” Chum? Who says chum?
But, using the voice, suddenly Cash cannot not sell. He’s on a roll, and will soon be promoted to “power caller” on the floors above. That’s where the real money is made. At the same time, his colleagues Squeeze and Salvador (Steven Yuen and Jermaine Fowler) begin to unionize, and so he must choose: his friends or the money? OK, it’s actually more complex. If he doesn’t get paid, like a lot, and soon, his uncle (Terry Crews) loses his home. So it’s more like friends + principles vs. family + money. He opts for the latter. His friends, and the movie, condemn him anyway.
They condemn him because he gets lost in the money. He’s got a new place, new furniture, new clothes. He and Detroit fight. She winds up with Squeeze. Whenever they were on screen together I just shook my head. It’s a “Who gives a shit?” subplot.
Going to meet the man
Meanwhile, Cash is going to meet The Man, CEO Steve Lift, at a party at his mansion. In the basement he accidentally stumbles upon a horrific scheme: Lift is turning his WorryFree workers into half horse creatures so they can do heavier labor.
It's a horrific reveal, but in the aftermath Riley keeps losing the thread. We get a bit of the Detroit on-again-off-again subplot. Cash then tries to alert the media. Initially I thought the preposterousness of the plot—the world’s richest man is using cocaine to turn his workers into half horse creatures!—would work against him, but nah. Bigger problem: Nobody cares. Or too few care. They’ve got their three channels, after all. That seems enough in this world.
Moments work. I like how Lift tries to soothe Cash and justify his actions as if they were logical and ethical. That was pitch-perfect. But the movie has huge targets it keeps missing. At one point, now siding with his colleagues, Cash wakes up in a paddy wagon and views the pitched battle through the thin slot in the door. There go the police routing the protestors. Nope, here come the protestors, led by the half-horse creatures. The back-and-forth looks comic but there’s nothing funny about it at all.