In writer/director Boots Riley’s debut feature film, Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green, a financially struggling young man who joins a telemarketing company and, by using a “white voice”, he quickly rises up through the company’s ranks and becomes an elite “power caller”, enjoying newfound wealth and prestige while his friends and co-workers still struggle to receive decent pay and engage in increasingly violent protest. But when Cassius learns that, as a power caller, what he’s selling is slavery, he soon finds himself descending into a hellish, nightmarish reality.
This has been a much talked about film of late and it seems to have garnered plenty of critical praise but having now seen it for myself, I’d say that Sorry to Bother You has its fair share of problems and, though the first half is pretty decent and the whole film sure is original and imaginative, something that surely must be admired in a world filled with remakes and reboots
Riley, the film’s messages aren’t powerful enough (nor are they even that interesting or important), the narrative is messy, and as it eventually descends into Gilliam/Gondry-esque territory, the whole thing winds up as a bit of an unpleasant affair that won’t encourage repeat viewings.
The first half of the film is relatively straight forward: man gets a job, man finds success, he rises up through the ranks, gets richer, loses himself, alienates his friends, eventually sees the light and tries to do right and set things straight (Heck, didn’t The Flintstones have that exact same plot?). The plot in the first half may be fundamentally basic when you break it down, but Riley injects enough quirky touches and imaginative directorial decisions to keep things afloat and the whole notion of affecting a “white voice” (brought to life quite brilliantly by the likes of David Cross, Patton Oswalt and Lily James – even if the lip-synching is glaringly substandard) is the funnest part of the film and there’s also a worthy attempt throughout to say something about Corporate America, social inequality and modern day slavery/racism.
However, things start to change during the second half as the tone takes a sharp left turn: taking leave of the slightly wacky social satire of the first half, Sorry to Bother You descends into the surreal and the bizarre but while this could have worked in the film’s favour, events in the final chapters are most unpleasant and end up leaving a sour taste in the mouth. I won’t go too far into spoiler territory but it’s revealed that the “evil company” is meddling in some incredibly gruesome experiments but this inclusion proves to be wholly detrimental to the film because all comedy is abandoned and the events that transpire are far from kooky and darkly comic – they’re just gross.
In this regard, Riley’s direction is flawed because this section of the film isn’t as deliriously unhinged or eye-wideningly manic as it probably should have been and he doesn’t have a good grasp on the film’s overall tone – it has a smattering of humorous moments (Diana DeBauchery, anyone?) but is not nearly funny enough and neither is it properly dramatic or exciting. His flighty writing is also problematic because, in addition to the aforementioned formulaic nature of the first half, there seem to be several messages and themes flying around but none of them really hit and at the end of the day, it’s too hard to gauge just what the point of it all was.
But as I say, there are still some innovative directorial touches here and there, the whole thing is very efficiently designed, there’s certainly a disquieting atmosphere included (maybe he should have written/directed a horror film instead?), and, in a world plagued with stale, tired remakes, reboots and “reimaginings”, a film as different as this is surely welcome, right?
The cast are a good bunch: the increasingly popular Lakeith Stanfield is solid as our main character (though original star Donald Glover would have been better suited to the role IMO), Tessa Thompson is cool as Cassius’ girlfriend Detroit, Jon Hamm’s vocal doppelganger Armie Hammer is ideally unhinged and reptilian as nasty CEO Steve Lift, Steven Yeun is very likable as Cassius’ activist friend Squeeze, not-too-old-for-this-s#$t Danny Glover is great as co-worker Langston and, as mentioned before, David Cross provides all of the laughs as Cassius’ all important “white voice”.