What we need
Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You is a fresh dose of sincerity, which we so badly need right now. Even though it’s set in a hyperbolic version of our own reality – with surreal and absurd moments sprinkled throughout – it rings true for the entire one hour and forty-five minute runtime. I went in spontaneously with a friend after I had heard it was worth checking out. We almost didn’t go because at the box office we were told there were only two seats left, in the first row – and I’m glad we made the split decision to go in anyway. Packed house. Hysterical laughter throughout. And being right up front for the close-ups and in-your-face title fonts enhanced the experience.
Lakeith Stanfield – whom some of you may know from Atlanta – is endearing, and convincing, as the down-on-his luck everyman. Destitute, he has to take a job in a soul-sucking telemarketing company. Tessa Thompson – who plays my one of my favorite character in Westworld – is his performance-artist girlfriend, forced to twirl signs to make ends meet. When Stanton’s character Cassius lands the gig at the telemarketing company, he quickly learns that if he uses a “white voice” – a plucky, nasal-toned persona – he’ll get more leads. Code-switching is the movie’s most prevalent theme. Tessa’s character Detroit also does a voice to make inroads into the pretentious echelons of the art world. Her voice affectation is faux-British, and her performance art mirrors – in a literal way – what Cassius subjects himself to at the telemarketing company. Spectators at her show fling random objects and fluids at her exposed body.
Cassius gets involved with the rabble rousers on his first day of work after he meets Squeeze, a union-organizer played impressively by Steven Yeun (as an aside, it’s nice to see an Asian American in a role with agency, for once). Cassius, whose “white voice” is so effective at closing deals that he quickly attains rockstar status, gets promoted, and he is forced to pick sides. Stand on the picket lines with the rabble rousers, or go to the “top floor” where the real moneymakers are. He chooses the latter, and thus begins his hero’s journey into the darkness of corporate America.
The absurd humor, the over-the-top performances by Armie Hammer, Kate Berlant and the rest of the cast, are comedic gold. But, I think what makes this movie work for me is its lack of snark. There’s a genuine, sincere impulse behind it. It shows all of our flaws without resorting to heavy-handed sermonizing. Yes, the evil CEO is cartoonish and boorish, but at the same time he’s likable as a character. Detroit has her flaws; Cassius, the audience surrogate, sells out – as we all have done – in order to get by. The top floor rockstar marketers are also sympathetic in their slavish adherence to the company’s code. There’s something of them in us.
Humor recently has hinged too much on inside jokes and snarky quips. This is probably because we’re living in a universe of franchise superheroes, where self-reference is part of the equation that makes these movies work. Like last year’s phenomenal Get Out, this movie pulls off humor with a sharp, cutting edge. It’s the kind of humor that makes you ask questions of yourself, instead of pat yourself on the back for belonging to an elitist club and “getting it.”
Aside from the code-switching theme, there are strong nods to Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, both in tone and aesthetic. Sublimely surreal and quirky. Endearing and bittersweet. It doesn’t feel as cohesive as Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which, to be fair, relied on horror genre tropes, and as a result had a storyline which felt tighter. However, Sorry to Bother You is much more ambitious as a movie. And funnier. And just as disturbing. We need more of this in American storytelling.