Occasionally a movie comes along that demands true thought into what it has to say. These are the kinds of the films that fascinate me the most, the ones that can match subtlety and heavy handed themes and symbolism to create a project that demands attention and respect if for no other reason than for doing something extremely unique in an art that is rife with remakes, sequels and obvious unapologetic knockoffs. Ever since I first saw the trailer for “Sorry to Bother You” I had a feeling it would be one of those aforementioned “thinking” movies and I made a special point to head out and see it once it expanded its release. The film was so intriguing, so brutally honest, and so willing to takes its narrative in odd but significant directions I found myself having to sit on it for a couple of days and think it over to decide how I truly felt about it. It is literally the first time in the year-and-a-half I’ve run this blog I’ve had to take this long to ponder how to grade a movie. So now that my thought process is complete here is my review of one of this year’s most interesting movies, “Sorry to Bother You”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Sorry to Bother You” takes place in an alternate version of present day Oakland in an era where the United States has hit a poor economic state and the American psyche has deteriorated to the point where the top show on television involves people willingly being beaten up for money. In addition a company called WorryFree is offering a life free of the struggles of paying bills and paying for food in exchange for a contract to work for any of the company’s many partnerships which has given rise to a movement called the Left Eye accusing WorryFree of slave labor. A desperate lower class black male named Cash Green (Lakeith Stanfield) joins a company called RegalView as a telemarketer where he is advised by a coworker (Donald Glover) to use an alternate “white voice” in order to win over callers. Cash becomes good at his job and eventually recruits his artistic socially liberal girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) to work for the company. The two befriend Squeeze (Steven Yeun) who tries to organize the company’s employees into a union but when Cash’s success earns him a promotion to the prestigious position of Power Caller to deal negotiations for WorryFree his convictions and dedication to his job and friends are all challenged while Cash’s success at the job leads him to uncover a conspiracy involving WorryFree’s CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) that threatens to put corrupt humanity even further for financial gain.
There’s A LOT I loved about this movie and while it has some major shortcomings in it’s final act that I’ll touch on later I have to preface this entire review by stating honestly no matter how much I tried to question it I found “Sorry to Bother You” to be one of the most unique and memorable cinematic experiences of the year so far. I’ll start with the performances which are very committed to the narrative as they capture real and sincere people in a world meant to embrace the most ridiculous and brutal of American clichés we all choose to ignore. Lakeith Stanfield shows an impressive charm even despite the depressed and lost nature of his character while costars Tessa Thompson and Steve Yeun handle their characters flawlessly as well. What’s great is that despite the protagonists supposedly being on the right side of the social justice issues in this film they are also inherently flawed. “Sorry to Bother You” might be geared towards unearthing the shortcomings of white America and the nation in general, but it never shies away from showing how the people we’re supposed to support, who are usually ethnic minorities mind you, can be just as hypocritical. It presents people as humans which helps make its social messages more believable, authentic and sincere. The actors are fully on board to help bring a more grounded approach to what it essentially a satirical look at modern America and where society is headed on its current path.
That brings me to something that I found to be the absolute best part of “Sorry to Bother You”. The film lives up to its name because it unapologetically attacks so many societal issues in two hours’ time essentially doing everything it can to bother the viewer in all the right ways. Whether it’s the aforementioned willingness to show flawed protagonists representative of modern social movements or it’s over-the-top presentations of YouTube and viral video culture, modern visual and performance art, workforce “slavery” or still-existent racial biases in general “Sorry to Bother You” somehow manages to balance all of it with relative grace.
The story seldom feels overcrowded or pretentious and it also never feels like the film is pandering. It’s simply telling people what they need to hear and succeeds in making us laugh at the lunacy and idiocy of our own modern vices similar to how “Idiocracy” also worked years ago. Basically it’s a film that succeeds in making us laugh at ourselves and it’s only after those chuckles that we realize we’re just as stupid or flawed as the people on screen. There’s so much thrown at us in so little time, yet “Sorry to Bother You” avoids feeling bloated and owns every point it’s trying to make. What’s more is that it does all this with an artistic flair. Like the quirky and odd art that Detroit creates in the movie, “Sorry to Bother You” comes off as director and writer Boots Riley’s cry to those still blinded by their own ignorance to wake up and realize that the problems of the world don’t just dissolve if you ignore them, but you don’t necessarily feel bad after watching this film, you just feel enlightened and entertained.
What makes “Sorry to Bother You” such an important film is that it flawlessly mixes satirical comedy and social commentary laced with character drama together to present a hilarious and mind-bending experience that, at it’s core, also feels very human. To put it in simple terms this is as close to a classic art painting as modern movies can get presenting a version of our world for us to learn from and to interpret in our own way. From its representation of racism to its admittedly out there interpretation of modern human slavery “Sorry to Bother You” manages to tackle multiple different issues with tact and conviction while also adding a sense of visual wonder and its own unique style. It truly is like nothing we’ve seen before. It throws so much at you and layers each scene with a combination of light and dark pallets and an old school vibe that truly gives the movie its own unique flavor. I found it pleasant to watch and important viewing that touches on timely themes without the risk of ever feeling dated or out of style. Few films can feel retro, modern, significant and ridiculous all at the same time and still work. “Sorry to Bother You” not only accomplishes that feat, it does so in a way that makes it hard to look away.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
While “Sorry to Bother You” is very well done as a deep, hilarious and significant surreal satire of modern America its flaws lie in some of the most basic aspects of the movie. One of the most annoying pieces of the film is the “white voice” tool and don’t bite my head off here because I’m not saying the white voice concept was wrong. In fact, it makes up one of the most brutal pieces of social commentary in the movie. No, what annoyed me the most was that the white voices never match the characters’ mouth movements. The white voices are played by David Cross, Patton Oswalt and Lily James but not once did I see the actors commit to matching their mouth movements to what their respective white actors where saying. Sometimes the words and lips aren’t even in sync and when they are it’s blatantly obvious that the words aren’t coming from those actors because they’re moving their mouths the same way they would normally when anyone with a background in linguistics or basic common sense can explain why this is inaccurate. In the case of Cash for example Lakeith Stanfield talks naturally with a more close-mouthed moan but when David Cross takes over Stanfield never adjusts his mouth movements to make the vocal change and inflection believable. This same approach is shared by the other black actors who have to do white voices with only Danny Glover really pulling off the trick as his vocals were done by the sound engineer. It was annoying, lacked believability and thus took me out of the movie as one of the rare errors this film presented.
I also have to touch on the big twist at the end that takes “Sorry to Bother You” into science fiction territory and is the basis for Cash’s later conflict with the CEO of WorryFree. If there’s one thing above all else that anyone could have against this movie it’s that it may have given a new meaning to jumping the shark by providing a completely out of left field final-act conflict meant to be a heavy handed and outrageous symbolic representation of modern slavery. I thought long and hard about this twist and I’m honestly mixed about it. I understand the meaning and significance but the way it’s presented is so out there, so random, so completely out of nowhere and seemingly forced that I can’t help but be even a little bit frustrated with the final result even if I appreciate what Boots Riley was trying to do. It’s a twist that will either make or break this movie for you. It affects the pacing and realism of the final act tremendously and feels like it was meant more for the shock value than to make a point. In the end I respect it and it’s not enough to spoil the movie for me, but it is enough to make me question how much better this film would have been had Riley taken a different, much more logical direction. Although, considering the tone of this film, I guess a mind-bending twist was bound to show up sooner or later. It’s not a bad twist, just not what this movie truly needed or deserved frankly.
I guess the only other mark on the movie’s record could be how you interpret it. “Sorry to Bother You” is a perfect thinking man’s comedy film that challenges the viewer in more ways than one. If you find the many critiques on society to be too heavy handed simply because you want more fun and less significance from your movies then you’re probably going to hate this film, and that’s fine. “Sorry to Bother You” doesn’t try to satisfy everyone but it is kind of hard to try and determine who is supposed to like this movie. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the charm of “Sorry to Bother You” isn’t that it’s supposed to be perfect. Maybe is point is that it’s supposed to be imperfect. Maybe it’s not meant to be liked by one specific crowd, but rather act as a film that violates the senses, morals and convictions of anyone who could watch it in one way other another. How you interpret it and how much you appreciate it is truly up to you so for the first time in a review on this blog it’s actually part of the critique that “Sorry to Bother You” is only as good as the person watching it wants and allows it to be. In some circles that can be analyzed as it being a film without a true direction. But, again, what if that was the point all along?
“Sorry to Bother You” is not the movie I hoped it be, but I kind of liked that. It’s got a great script, great acting, great visual aesthetic and it’s unafraid to tell it like it is while adding a pleasantly ridiculous comedic flair. In many, many, MANY ways this is the film America needs right now that, to put it bluntly, is built to BOTHER you and open your eyes to social truths you may or may not have ignored. It does contain some brutal errors including the poorly edited white voice overlays and the intriguing but completely random final twist, but in the end I chose to overlook these as minor errors that may actually add to this movie’s bizarre presentation. I’ve never seen a movie that confused, entertained, and gripped me in the way this film does and it is also one of the most thought provoking and imaginative projects I’ve experienced since I started reviewing films. Not everyone is going to like this movie. Some will find it completely ridiculous. Some will find it boring and uninteresting. Some may even find it to be insulting. But it’s hard when watching this film to not think that this was all the point. Boots Riley and his crew have provided us with a movie that truly embraces the “art” aspect of cinema like few movies even dare to attempt these days. For that it has my respect and a perfect score as one of the most complicated films it has ever been my honor to review.