Synopsis: Um …
1. I normally start these things with a pithy one-line summary of the film. This one needs a paragraph. Ok. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) joins a telemarketing firm, and soon learns the secret to success is to put on a ‘white voice’ (David Cross) on the phone. Before long, Cassius is promoted to the status of ‘Power Caller’, which brings him into the orbit of Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the CEO of WorryFree, a company that may or may not be involved in slavery. Cassius’s rise in the ranks becomes a point of contention in his various relationships, with performance artist / sign spinner girlfriend Detroit (my girl Tessa Thompson), best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) and would-be union leader Squeeze (Steven Yeun).
This is when the really weird shit happens.
2. Sorry To Bother You is that rarest of beasts – a mainstream piece of satirical leftist agitprop (agitation + propaganda). As incendiary as it is joyous, first-time director Boots Riley snarls and sneers in equal measure at the horrifying mess that is late capitalism, crafting a dystopian science-fiction world that sadly looks all too similar to the one we are living in. In a film so stuffed (possibly overstuffed) with this many ideas, it is perhaps unsurprising that it lacks cohesion and coherence, particularly towards the end when it runs out of steam a little. Nonetheless, Sorry To Bother You makes up for its relative lack of polish with wit, energy, and no shortage of nerve. There are so many brilliant ideas in this film – framing every telemarketer call as a face-to-face conversation between Cassius and his mark, the voice in the elevator cooing over Cassius’s penis, the very idea of a VIP room in a dive bar – that it is hard to fault Riley for wanting to cram them all into his film. Also, it’s really fucking funny, and in my book, that covers for a million sins.
3. The closest analogue I can find to Sorry To Bother You would be Putney Swope, which was a 60s underground satire of the advertising world directed by Robert Downey Sr (yes, he is exactly who you think he is). Oddly enough though, another film that came to mind was Robocop, which might have been the last truly great societal satire (Idiocracy, as prescient as it is, is too scattered of a film to qualify). Like Putney Swope and Robocop, Sorry To Bother You takes aim at everything – mindnumbing reality TV, white people who try far too hard to be ‘with it’, the military-industrial complex – and like those two films, it arrives at the similar conclusion that the rot begins and ends with capitalism, particularly the version we have today. Boots Riley flaunts his leftist credentials at all times (not hard to do when the central victory in the film involves forming a union), and some of the strongest parts of the film come from the incisive analysis of management-labour relations. People are trapped in dead-end jobs, unable to find fulfilment or even scrape together a meagre survival while the profits from their hard work are siphoned and hoarded away by the rich.
4. Above all, Riley’s film pops with pure energy. His cutting is kinetic (to the point of being frenetic at times), his camera moves and zooms with reckless abandon, his actors scream and shout and cheer, his score (credited to indie duo tUnE-yArDs) bubbles and grooves beneath the surface. Sorry To Bother You is thus never boring, though it is occasionally exhausting. To go back to the point of the editing, Riley’s habit of hard smash cuts does reach a point of diminishing returns, and there are times in the story when the viewer’s sense of time is destabilised due to how often he jumps forward with no warning. There is a section in the final third involving a media montage that is revealed to have taken place over a day, which just seems comical because it is constructed like the sort of thing that happens over a week. His scene assemblies are also a little sloppy in parts (particularly in the performance art scene) – but then again, with a film like this, is its ramshackle nature more of a feature than a bug? I lean more towards the former than the latter, but if you prefer a tighter or more traditional storytelling style, you would probably disagree.
5. A word for Lakeith Stanfield, who, along with his three fellow co-stars in Atlanta, is deservedly blowing up right now. Anyone who has watched Atlanta knows how great of an actor Stanfield is, and he proves it in spades with this performance. Stanfield does a great everyman, and he accomplishes so much in this film simply through posture (body and vocal) alone. As corporate drone Cassius, he slouches and whispers, as Power Caller Cassius, he swaggers and howls. Much of the character of Cassius is conveyed through the soulfulness behind Stanfield’s eyes, which is deeply necessary for the film to succeed. As an old-school satire, characterisation is somewhat lacking in favour of broader archetypes. This is why the casting of this film works so well, as the actors bring life and feeling to these archetypes. Aside from Stanfield, my bae Tessa Mae is on fire as always, while Danny Glover, Steven Yeun and Jermaine Fowler do a lot with very little.
6. Casting Armie Hammer as ‘White Man’ in this film is as ingenious a move as casting Allison Williams as ‘White Girl’ in Get Out. Hammer is clearly having the time of his life hamming it up, but his whole decadent-CEbro schtick does get a little over-indulgent at parts. A little would have gone a long way.
7. Sorry To Bother You also has one scene that is Scene of the Year material. I will not spoil it, because it’s best experienced with no idea what’s coming, but let’s just say that Boots Riley is very cognisant of why some white people love listening to hip-hop.
8. Riley also has a real visual flair, which adds to the entertainment factor in the film. Hair and costuming are on point, from Detroit’s multicoloured curls to Cassius’s sharp suits. The sets are also brilliantly designed to bring out the contrast between the 1% and the 99% – the drabness of the call centre vs. the minimalist chic of the Power Caller officer, Cassius’s garage living space vs. his upgraded modern apartment, and so on. There is a keen understanding here on how the spaces we inhabit influence our behaviour and our lives, and Riley’s almost impeccable sense of composition conveys that sense perfectly.
9. Can you enjoy Sorry To Bother You without agreeing with its politics? It’s hard to say, and I’m clearly not the right person to say it. This is not exactly a film that preaches to the choir, but it’s not a piece of evangelism seeking new converts either. I mean, you have to go into it already believing that unions are Very Good Things and exploitative labour conditions are Very Bad Things (though I’d like to think that most of the dozen or so readers I have can agree with this at the least) in order for it to truly work its magic. It is agitprop, and makes absolutely no bones about it. But it is extremely well-crafted, entertaining, hilarious agitprop, and while some of its seams are a little obvious, I can assure you that it will certainly be one of the more enjoyable experiences you have in a cinema this year.
Plus you get to learn all about ‘the white voice’, which, hey, might actually help you get ahead in life, because the situation we are in sucks but no worries because climate change will kill all of us in three decades anyway hahahahahahaha oh god I’m so scared.
[Singaporeans – Sorry To Bother You plays at the Singapore International Film Festival on the 3rd and 5th of December at 9.30pm at the National Museum. Highly recommended, in case it was not clear from the review.]