Satirical filmmaking has been condensed into forums of ignorance driven comedy. It is very rarely something speaking with a bright and outrageous voice. Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” is something that shakes up the genre in a way that doesn’t match audience expectations. Instead, remaining in the vein of the witty and hilarious Terry Gilliam while also staying rugged like a 60's Goddard film. It’s a movie that puts the laughter back in satire and fearlessly dissects the intricate socio-political subjects of corporate animosity, identity politics, and our American instinct to look the other way when chaos and turmoil erupt from the city streets.
Boots Riley recognizes that cultural dilemma and manifests a world where literal corporate slavery goes under the radar, and a show that averages 150 million viewers is about watching people getting beaten up. Clearly, a mirage based reality, "Sorry to Bother You" is reflecting the insanity of a world that we dub as normal.
It’s like walking into a mirror world that is reflecting the society we take part in fabricating. Shedding the blinders placed on ourselves by our fear of facing an unsolvable problem, never slowing down for those refusing to jump on the funky bandwagon, and speeding up for those who think they can keep up with Riley’s wit.
It grounds itself around the character of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young black man suffering from a lack of money. He lives out of the garage of his uncle house, who is barely surviving his economic grievances as well, behind is rent for more than four months. With the self-imposed pressure of wanting to make his life memorable and the added stress of paying back his family for their sacrifices, Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) gets a job as a telemarketer at RegalView.
He’s sold a bill of goods by the management, told of the prestigious land of power callers where the best marketers find themselves selling big money for big people. Struggling to get one of these useless brown encyclopedias sold through a sequence of practically constructed scenes, a colleague advises him to use a “white-voice.” It’s not that Will Smith white as he jokes, it's the one that sounds absent of stress and confident that life is working out for him, a subtle in-take on the inherent trust given to white people based on stereotypical beliefs,
That’s just a little jab thrown from “Sorry to Bother You,” as we learn that power callers are responsible for selling things they shouldn’t, and Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) doesn’t apologize for being successful at that either, gaining the attention of the maniacally charming Steve Life (Armie Hammer). He soon has the unjustifiable world revealed to him through a story that goes from earth-based satire to the stratosphere of insanity.
It’s subversive and surreal take that doesn’t sway you with heavy messages; it jabs you with loaded jokes meant to make you laugh and to make you think, though both sides don’t always balance each other out. It can become far too serious of a subject to feel comfortable laugh at, and sometimes it's so blatantly funny that the point behind the joke may go over your head.
Walking a tightrope with his humor, Boots Riley writes a narrative based on that instability. Writing his story as if he’s scooching alongside the edge of a tall building, peeking down at the den of failure, trying anything he can to save his film from disaster, and throws everything at this film. Including the kitchen sink and the rest of the house, never apologizing for it either. Including any and every idea possible to make this movie work. It can become bat-shit crazy to watch this movie as the third act dives from brilliant satire to intricately designed horror/sci-fi, and it’s a lot to take in.
Sometimes it says too much, shouting it's messages at you instead of calmly stating them. Touching on the idea of selling our souls for greed, allowing capitalistic greed to strip away our humanity from us, quite literally. The film doesn’t tear apart a visual style though; cinematographer Doug Emmett works closely with Boots Riley by delivering a sleek, colorful, and practical look to a film that never shies away from speaking openly about tough subjects. Riley doesn’t hold back in that way even dubbing the “white-voice” with comedian David Cross. Recognizing satires are about creating a superficial and surreal world that seems insane at first glance, but continuously unfolds into rational thought the more and more you consider to dissect its makeup.
In the third act, it goes way too far for my taste, confusing metaphorical artistry as an excuse to throw something so ridiculous into the screenplay. Does it have a reason for its existence? Sure, but one that doesn’t warrant it's stay. Riley has that first film anxiety of including any and every idea that he thinks will make this film memorable, probably involving too much and never crossing out ideas that should have never made it to the final draft.
Nonetheless, the film does not act on its own accord of Riley’s brilliance, but rather a surrounding team of exceptional talent. Providing a potential launching pad for Lakeith Stanfield who does his best work to date, embracing the lunacy of it all with a performance that is matched by the rigorousness of Armie Hammer who strolls around his mansion in a muumuu. There’s an outstanding surrounding cast of Tessa Thompson, Donald Glover, Terry Crews, Jermaine Flower, Steven Yeun, Omari Hardwick, and even stand-up comedian W. Kamau Bell makes an appearance in this outrageous funhouse mirror of a movie.
It goes way too far in some areas, yes, but I can give it a nod for that. Never shying away from a challenge, going all-in instead of playing it safe and boring. “Sorry to Bother You” is a provocative comedy that has a bright light shining upon it from the endless raves of critics, a spotlight that won’t be matched by audience approval I expect. I can’t blame them either; it's a large and grand formulation of a man shouting the importance of complex social dilemmas with inventive but bizarre methods.
Some have compared Riley’s debut to Peele’s first feature film, “Get Out.” While they share the same inventiveness, Peele was able to deliver that necessary finesse to a film with such wacky storytelling, allowing his messages to hit with more acception due to that dose of believability. Riley does the opposite, on purpose I think. Choosing to go crazy for crazy sakes, being unashamed to be brash and original. If there is any “right way” to describe this film, it's just that, original.