'Sorry to Bother You' Might Be More Science Fiction Than Comedy (Review)
"I think the anxiety of the nation wrote this movie." That was my dad's quick assessment of Boots Riley's directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, and I have to say I have been hard pressed to find a better way of describing the movie myself. Right from the get go, we are introduced to a character by the name of Casius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), referred to, of course, by the nickname Cash. He is a) struggling to find a job, b) forced to use a "white" voice (provided hilariously by David Cross) to achieve success and c) reminded constantly that he can forget his woes by signing up for WorryFree, a company providing food and housing in exchange for, well, a lifetime of servitude. All of this is introduced in the first 30 minutes, and the dark reflections of modern-day society don't end there. Ultimately, Sorry to Bother You is a clever, but sometimes overbearing satire of American culture that succeeds more in the realm of science fiction than comedy.
The world of Sorry to Bother You feels like one that is only a few years off from our own. Popular television consists mainly of reality shows in which people are mercilessly beaten for the sake of comedy and news segments covering clashes between protestors and greedy corporations looking to exploit laborers for profit. The tele-marketing company that Casius Green works for, RegalView, entices its employees with the opportunity for them to earn the mysterious title of "Power Caller," in which they make much larger sales (weapons, the aforementioned slave labor) in exchange for greater profits. But of course, the only promotion we see to that status is used as a tactic to break up an attempt to form a labor union. As we follow Casius, his main struggle is whether he will join with his fellow workers and fight for their rights, or place his desire for self-worth first and use his ability to camouflage to move up in the ranks of the corporate structure.
While the world of Sorry to Bother You is a richly imagined, Black Mirror-esque spin on modern America, its characters succeed more as ideas than as actual people. Casius is the closest to being a fully-recognized personality. He doesn't just want to succeed because he wants to be rich - he wants to succeed so that his life will be worth something. He fears not only that he won't be able to pay his bills, but also for his legacy. He may represent the drive for individual success, but he isn't a caricature of greed, and his actions are layered and complex. His friends - not so much. Detroit (Tessa Thompson), his girlfriend and moral compass, is really just that. She exists to hold weird art shows, be quirky, and, primarily, to guide him on his journey towards righteousness and yell at him when he is wrong. Squeeze (Steven Yeun), the restless union organizer who leads the protests at RegalView, is similarly thinly-written. We know that he wants equal rights for his fellow tele-marketers and that he is a bit of a drifter, but we are given little insight into why. What is all the more frustrating is that there are plenty of characters, each representing a different facet of this movie's theme. A slightly better writer might have thought to combine them together to create more fleshed out characters.
I also think it is very important to manage your expectations when you walk into this movie. I recently complained about marketing in my review for Ant-Man and the Wasp, and I once again have a bone to pick here. Sorry to Bother You is without a doubt funny, but not in the goofy, laugh-out-loud way that the trailers depict it. Most of the playful jokes are in the trailer, and the rest of the laughs come more from a place of "that's an interesting parallel to or comment on the struggle for human rights" than from punchlines, wordplay or silliness. That's not to say I didn't chuckle and grin at a lot of the clever bits of this movie. On the contrary, there is some really strong satire that connected very strongly with me, such as the house party in which Armie Hammer's douche-bro executive Steve Lift assumes Casius is a gangster-rapper or an attempt to discredit WorryFree that ends up ironically sending their stock prices soaring. Calling Sorry to Bother You a comedy, however, feels like a bit of a stretch at times, and the lack of laughter in the mostly full theatre I was in reflects that pretty strongly.
Riley's direction itself can be sometimes inspired, and other times highly scattered. When Riley knows what he wants to achieve with a shot, it is really masterfully done. The tense, close-quarters deal between Cassius and Steve Lift is captured in such a way that Cash appears to be caught in a claustrophobic box of the executive's making, and the close up shots of the two of them contrast nicely with Steve's attempts to construct the illusion that he is just one of the guys. Another highlight is a montage of Cash's success, which focuses on him and Detroit lying in bed as the sheets and furniture around them change. Other times though, scenes go on too long, or fade out awkwardly. Detroit's art-show and Cash's rap performance linger on longer than they are welcome, and a few times, Riley seems as though he does not know where exactly he was going with a scene and just fades into the next part. I look forward to seeing how Riley continues to develop his skills as he makes more films, but as of now, he remains somewhat inconsistent in his focus.
Its also worth noting that Sorry to Bother You may start off with some vaguely futuristic elements early on, but ends up taking a deep nose dive into hard science fiction by the third act. I'm not saying there are robots or aliens or anything of that nature but....well, let's just say, the twist really took me by surprise, and I think its better that you go in not-knowing much about it. How out of place the twist seems in the story I think will likely depend on your buy-in by that point. If you accept Sorry to Bother You as a cautionary tale about labor relations in America set in a slightly off balance, Twilight Zone version of reality, you may very well be on board. If you walk in trying to reconcile the comedic aspects from the trailers with what you see on screen, you may have less success.