FOCUS FEATURES (2018)
Director: Boots Riley
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer
Rapper-turned-first time director Boots Riley drops the mic and takes the reins of his debut feature, Sorry to Bother You, looking to make a splash with his words, visuals and message. Collecting together the talents of Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Steven Yeun and Omari Hardwick (amongst others) will pretty much always bolster anything – well, as long as the story is strong, of course…
Struggling to get by in Oakland, California, Cassius Green’s (Stanfield) – AKA Cash - only option is a commission-based telemarketer role for Regalview, a grimy subsidiary of the controversial WorryFree organisation – a company that can rid you of your worldly troubles in exchange for a lifetime contract, one that somehow manages to swerve any slavery rules. Struggling to make an impact in the role, an older colleague (played by an authoritative Danny Glover) explains that punters only listen when you adopt your “white voice” – one that screams confidence, assurance, and a carefree attitude. As the sales rack up, Green is promoted to Power Caller and moved upstairs to a more glamorous position and an astronomical salary – much to the chagrin of his activist girlfriend Detroit (Thompson) and buds Sal (Jermaine Fowler) and Squeeze (Yeun) – but, under the watchful eye of coke-snorting, oddball CEO Steve Lift (Hammer), Cash’s like goes from wonderful to WEIRD very quickly.
A contender for strangest, most bonkers movie of the year, the uber-satirical Sorry to Bother You is dripping with confidence in every scene – from the performances, the message and the direction, everything feels incisive. When you start to discuss the story, however, it all gets a bit ropey. Not the first half, that’s great. When the movie takes its (even more) bizarre trip in the second half, it will surely test a lot of viewers as it just becomes an abstract tumble down a trippy, sci-fi path and it didn’t work for me. The raging messages of racism and capitalism are seething throughout and Boots Riley makes no bones about shouting these to the rooftops (and being important messages, it works just fine) and in the quirky, sharp first act, the messages shine brighter.
The combined cast are excellent and Lakeith Stanfield once again shows his undoubted talents leading the movie (just ignore Death Note) and his ability to remain affable amongst the issues his character faces is handled with aplomb. I have to say, also, anything with Terry Crews in will always receive a boost.
In amongst the mayhem, it’s clear Riley has an eye for visual flair and humour. The moments where Cash literally falls into the vicinity of his cold calling victims and his apartment/garage is revealed are brilliant and the fact he is so cash-strapped his window wipers will only work via string are great little flourishes. The humour throughout is generally on point but, again, the zanier it gets, the more testing it becomes.
What Riley cannot be accused of is not taking the risk, not ‘going for it’. In Sorry to Bother You, he has created something off the beaten track, something not quite mainstream whilst carrying all the hallmarks of a Hollywood flick. Whilst by the end of the movie, the risks and quirks didn’t pay off for me, they’ll bring the house down for those who did. I appreciate that everything within the movie is exaggerated, but by having the narrative go off on so many tangents (including the use of TV and art), the satire loses emphasis and dynamism, and it starts to feel a bit unhinged by around the 75% mark. The dreamlike quality of the movie becomes too disorientating and the metaphorical shouting and prodding became too much by the end. I’m not sorry I bothered, I had a pretty good time, but was left dazed and unfulfilled after all was said and done.
October 12th 2018