An outré punch in the face of the establishment.
Coming straight from the mind of rapper/music producer/filmmaker Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You is evidence of an emerging talent. He shows a real flair for the bold, the brave and straight-up deranged in his first feature effort, emblazoned with a dazzling star-cast. ‘First time luck’ is a popular maxim, although Riley is not deserving of such belittlement; this is a toilworn work of real auteurist moxy, but even in his warped successes, he is not immune to debutant-inflicted snags that hamper the experience.
We’re placed in an alternative version of a perturbing Oakland. Nothing looks too different, but there’s a whiff of dystopia in the air. In the background, you hear the sound of adverts promoting a mysterious (but definitely ill) WorryFree service. At the centre of this world is Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), an everyday guy trying to get by with his artist girlfriend (Tessa Thompson), living in his uncle’s garage while hunting for a job.
The film opens in a telemarketing office, with Cassius being interviewed for the position. His CV is dismantled in hugely embarrassing fashion – but it doesn’t matter. “Cash is green”, and Cassius “has initiative and he can read”, so naturally he’s hired on the spot. A fitting beginning to a brash story, with Riley’s abrupt (but by no means poor) writing requiring a degree of further adjustment.
All is well, and Cassius embarks on his newfound career as a telephone salesman. But he’s not got the knack for sales. People keep hanging up, and he can’t work out why. That is, until his co-worker (Danny Glover) advises him to use his “white person voice” – it’s a hit, and he starts climbing the corporate ladder, all the way to a cocaine-snorting CEO (Armie Hammer).
This isn’t a rags-to-riches template tale though. Not least because of Riley’s catching vision and symbolic language, jazzing up scenes with heavy fade transitions and admirably creative sequences that subvert staples in film (the classic two-way call is made hilariously intimate here). But mainly, Sorry to Bother You is batshit insane. It often feels like a feature-length offshoot of the Black Mirror universe, pulling your arm along on this weird, wacky, quite unnerving tour of a dystopia not-too-unlikely.
But Black Mirror works because of its length, and that’s where Riley struggles in contrast. He exhausts his core “white voice” conceit quite quickly, and while it does provide some hearty, contrite laughs from its in-your-face gags, the humour becomes reliant and as such, the feature has a tendency to stagnate in its 111-minute runtime.
Riley’s penmanship affords some characters better deals than others. Stanfield’s impressionable, but relatively virtuous “power caller” is a riveting pillar on which the film is built, with his increasingly panicked persona often in line with the audience’s total bemusement. Thompson though, while giving a typically charismatic turn, doesn’t benefit from the script, framed to be some sort of obsessed artist-cum-activist with an increasingly hypocritical relationship with Cassius. Outside of the pair, other figures in the movie are written quite loosely (Stephen Yeun makes a pleasant appearance here but by the end, his presence seems entirely inconsequential). Hammer is a prepossessing actor with an inherent gravitas, and he has a lot of fun with his frankly, despicable 21st-century slave-owner type corporate lord.
The cinematography is consistently striking from Doug Emmett, although doesn’t revel in some its more stylish strokes enough. Occasionally, Emmett shows a real adroit eye for quirkiness, but Riley maintains that momentum more. The music retains the punky energy of the affair, with a team on board for the composition (made up of The Coup, Merrill Garbus, Tune-Yards and Riley). The movie is anything but subtle – Riley takes the passive attitude of the white middle/upper class, who luxuriate in their supposed ‘acknowledgement’, and beats the shit out of it. The end result is an arresting watch, repeatedly shocking (wait for a video that’s disturbingly akin to a Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared release) and somewhat hilarious in its satirical farce. But its disjointed nature manifests itself as time runs on, with conflicting styles that only rise from an artist getting carried away. This kind of fierce originality is exciting though, we must nurture it.
A provocative debut that if condensed, would have been something really special.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm