Ask anyone who knows me – I love satire and outrageous social commentary. Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” was one of my favorite films of last year, and shows like “Parks and Recreation” (2009-2015, NBC) or “Black Mirror” (2011-present, Netflix) are the kinds of programs I binge-watch regularly. Therefore, Boots Riley’s feature directorial debut, “Sorry to Bother You,” seemed like a shoe-in for me, based on its trailer. It’s a wacky comedy about an African American telemarketer who learns to use his “white voice” and succeed in the corporate market. But the movie falls flat quickly (before the halfway point), drawing too many lines in the sand and jumbling its incoherent script. It tries to do everything.
This is 2018, so it’s not surprising that an anti-corporate, anti-capitalist, pro-union and racially charged film is rising through the ranks of critics and audiences alike. And anyone can appreciate this movie’s use of humor to set the tone, but seriously, “Sorry to Bother You” attempts to take every allegory and analogy about America’s state of affairs to the furthest extent while still desperately trying to remain controversial. The end result is a film so muddled that you lose interest. It goes from levels of craziness to lunacy, from lunacy to madness, and then from madness into reckless insanity. Judging by my love for “mother!” that would sound like a good thing, but the contrasts and transitions in “Sorry to Bother You” are so stark that the film even attempts to jump genres (dipping quite generously into the sci-fi/fantasy realm).
Some of the concepts are good, and are complemented by witty writing, particularly in a scene where our protagonist, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), raps for a party of rich white folk. Instead of creating sensible lyrics, he raps the n-word a record number of times, and the audience eats it up because it’s linked to something they have no concept of. If only the entire movie could be as funny and brilliant as this short sequence.
The movie doesn’t necessarily set itself up for failure, because there is a lot of ambiguity and conflicting paths to take as an audience. In the beginning, Cassius is criticized as a sellout for trying to make it in the telemarketing game. He swiftly rises up through the ranks, and the conflict is that he had to use a “white voice” to get there. However, is he a sellout for learning how to manipulate the system? He makes a name for himself and can afford a better life, yet we’re encouraged to side with his girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and coworkers who seem to despise him just because of his success. These kinds of dynamics are awesome…until a movie tries to force you into a box so that you can essentially only agree with one side. The corporation Cassius works for turns out to be evil (that’s not a spoiler in a movie like this, trust me), but it seems more like a convenient plot point to affirm his friends’ beliefs instead of a stunning allegory of how corporate America pushes people down. Armie Hammer is fitting as the eccentric and corrupt CEO, but his work isn’t given room to flourish. And a brief word on Thompson’s character: she represents a cool and interesting caricature of a radically feminist artist, but we’re meant to take all of her hijinks seriously. As soon as that is made apparent, she becomes another example of “Sorry to Bother You” being controversial for controversy’s sake. She’s an attention-seeker who we’re meant to agree with.
Overall, the movie doesn’t do its homework, so to speak. It brings up politics, race, internet fads, and many other social topics with a liberal leaning, but refuses to actively do anything with them. It’s social commentary without doing enough of the commenting. I keep wanting to force Aronofsky’s “mother!” into the conversation, and I think it’s fair, since that film caused an uproar for being ambiguous as well. “mother!” presented things and left them hanging with enough religious undertones to be deciphered in a variety of ways; “Sorry to Bother You” presents its outrageous scenarios with an expected response in mind, losing sight of itself as an art film in the process. The quirkiness of “Sorry to Bother You” is its main saving grace, but it’s so poorly constructed that it all becomes second-nature and frankly, a bit boring.