by Joe Hammerschmidt
[NOTE: This film was reviewed previously for the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival]
There will always be one film every year that manages to leave me with a complete WTF reaction on my face at the end, a total surprise masterpiece of sorts. If it happens during the big city film festival, bonus brownie points. Overall, one may experience complicated emotions with a film they truly loved, but at the time of one’s first viewing had no idea how to formally express their thoughts in mere words, which makes sense why I couldn’t write right away about Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, possibly the most grounded, most astonishing debut feature from a rookie director I’ve experienced in quite some time. There is so much packed in, I knew I needed some time to really digest the lavish meal all five senses had caught the immediate wind to. Compelling characters, a relatable common theme, an impressive ensemble cast and scenic Bay Area locales, all swirling together in a captivating satirical pastiche. No surprise, it’s a fun watch that deserves the attention of your entire physical being, knowing you’ll come back out the other side a changed cinephile afterward.
But how does such a fantastically unbelievable film come together? Riley, a Chicago native, has made a daring leap to branch out into film, with a heartfelt eye for purposeful comedy. Laughter, with a reminder of where exactly it’s coming from. Oakland is the setting, almost a Bizarro World scenario where affluence couldn’t be more closely tied to hard work, but only if one is white. Young adult Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), known to his friends simply as Cash, is on his last legs with trying to hold everything together: paying off rent for his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews), and maintaining a steady relationship with girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He makes the conscious decision to apply for a telemarketing job with conglomerate RegalView, a company with plenty of controversy as a left-wing radical group run by one of Cash’s close friends, the rebellious Squeeze (Steven Yeun). Of course, Cash is stuck in the middle of protecting his new job and supporting his colleagues. He finds a small solution for the former, at least, the very moment he falls into a trap, using his hidden “white voice” to attract customers. So many unexpected doors open for him at his first taste of success, something he could never imagine possible. The only possible problem here is that Riley may have been too pessimistic over a lack of future race culture advancement; simultaneously, the film’s inherent Twilight Zone-esque themes are only reinforced deeper through its dark optimism.
Stanfield makes a monumentally courageous leading man debut, fresh off an acclaimed supporting part in last year’s Get Out and a cast regular position with the Emmy-winning Atlanta. His career trajectory has certainly made all the right pit stops in a ten-year span, and Sorry to Bother You aides in his slingshot toward the summit. While he’s the true face of the film, he’s not going it alone. Much of the comedy falls in the auditory form of Cash’s “white voice”, aptly provided by the talented David Cross, and how it simply manages to take over its physical host’s every thought, every professional move, climbing up the corporate ladder like a king among jesters. Even still, his new boss Mr. _____ is almost just as persuasive, so is his own white voice (the always cozy Patton Oswalt). Add on the very top, the excited face of board member Steve Lift, who takes an instant shine to Cash, with plenty of future plans with the learning entrepreneur in mind. Leave it to Armie Hammer, to elevate that character far above the edge of the atmosphere the very moment his motives are revealed.
Does it trouble me a little I can’t quite divulge any deeper on the film’s plot? Yes, absolutely. Trust me when I say that where the film manages to surprise, shock, and even leave an uneasy feeling in one’s stomach is where Riley is most comfortable with. His artistic statements are clearly not straightforward, taking an advanced forward turn to expose a disgusting side of racial imbalance, its effect on wages, and the hiccups one may experience against staking their claim in a sea of corporate sharks. Cash is the clueless observer whose only goal is self-survival, despite his new company home clashing with a divisive general public. Squeeze and aging telemarketing vet Langston (co-producer Danny Glover) are the hawks hovering over Cash to keep him on a path of morality. Detroit, and her occasional, almost disturbing white voice (portrayed by Lily James), the supportive voice of reason pulling her boyfriend out of a potential pit of insanity. And Steve’s just the douchey firebrand promising a brighter future, and then some. These are very special characters whose ideals can only be glossed open in a mere written review; what they all accomplish with Mr. Riley directing them is a purely visual form of artistic expression. In no small terms is it also very auditory, not just through the compelling voice-over work meant to paint the ears in a slight deceit, but also through the director’s choice of music, combining the work of his own Oakland-based funk-rap fusion group The Coup, and additional cues from multi-instrumentalist Merrill Garbus, and connecting that vibe to a sophisticated side of the city Riley considers his home, only wishing to do proper justice.
I probably could go a little further into detail over why Sorry to Bother You is easily the year’s best comedy at the midpoint of a year where the typical watered-down chucklefest still prevails, but there’s always room for one film to stand out or in the case of this year’s offerings a second (Game Night being the first). I shouldn’t have to, and while it was easy to let the words flow out in this described write-up, they still cannot express how you, the viewer may take on the dizzying delirium one may be enticed to let fall in their laps. It is mysterious, it is stunning, perhaps even a little breathtaking, highly witty, and unashamedly honest to just whom it’s speaking to, not one single race-based audience, but as many people as possible. A common-thread story of succeeding in the world of business, with a little elbow grease added in for good measure; when done right, it can speak to so many, and be forever relatable. Boots Riley has proven himself a unique directing talent, with so much to look forward to in terms of his job opportunities after achieving one hell of a debut. Without any hesitation, and no reason to apologize, he answers the call, makes the sale, may just win a waiting audience over. May you be as excited to dive in. (A-)
Sorry to Bother You debuts in wide release at a handful of area theaters this weekend; rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use; 105 minutes.