Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018)


Like so many high-concept independent films that have been lauded at the Sundance Film Festival over the years, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You is a major disappointment. It’s a film with such a stellar cast and promising conceit that the scattershot manner of its execution is even more aggravating than if it had been simply mediocre.

Sorry to Bother You stars Lakeith Stanfield as the down-and-out Oaklander, Cassius Green, in an “alternate-reality present.” It charts Cassius’s unexpected and absurd ascent of the corporate ladder at a telemarketing company, which comes about when he masters a “white voice” to use with customers over the phone. The conceit here is not that Lakeith Stanfield adopts the vocal mannerisms of a white guy like this is a Dave Chappelle sketch; it’s that when Cassius picks up the phone to call a customer, David Cross’s voice comes out.

It’s a brilliant idea. And, sadly, it doesn’t work at all.

Part of this is that Cross’s voice is poorly synced to Stanfield’s lip readings, as if Riley and his fellow filmmakers deliberately unsynced it in order to highlight the film’s uncanny nature (which is likely). But more significantly, the way that Riley uses this conceit to attempt to seriously address racial inequality, corporate greed, and social obligation in modern America betrays a foundational flaw in his approach. Namely, it’s not clear what the “white voice” is supposed to represent in the real world.

Perhaps it represents the code switching that black people are expected to perform when functioning in white-dominant societies, but black people in the real world rarely, if ever, succeed beyond their wildest dreams simply by downplaying their “blackness”; no real person’s career would improve as exponentially as Cassius’ does. Furthermore, the concept is too broadly comedic to register as a clear commentary on a single, real-world element of racial relations; this isn’t an allegory. So, beyond the absurd juxtaposition between the sight and sound of the conceit itself, it serves no fruitful thematic function.

In addition to being a writer and director, Boots Riley is a rap artist, a community organizer, and an activist. He has an agenda and Sorry to Bother You beats its leftist drum with a vigour you won’t find in most American films. Notably, a significant part of the film details the creation of a union within the telemarketing company. That vigour is commendable, but the film’s message is all over the place, diluting and confusing its message. I get the sense from the film that Riley recognizes the hot mess that is our modern world and decided to lampoon all the manners of injustice that he believes contribute to this mess, which includes racism, corporate malfeasance, wage slavery, and the manipulation of labour in our current economy. Unfortunately, satire needs a clarity of focus in order to successfully land its blows. As well, satire is meant to clarify the evils of the world, not make them more obscure.

Most great works of satire like Animal Farm, Dr. Strangelove, and “A Modest Proposal” narrow their focus to a few interrelated issues and explore these problems through the typical methods of exaggeration, parody, and mockery. They know their objects of attack and go about attacking them broadly and ruthlessly. Riley exaggerates, parodies, and mocks elements of American culture, but he bites off more than he can chew. He attacks the entire system of America through a narrative conceit that relies on the fantastic to make logical sense but he wants the film’s attacks to speak to the mundane real world. The problem is that these fantastic conceits couldn’t exist in the real world. Cassius Green’s position could never be replicated by an actual person. Furthermore, the “white voice” conceit doesn’t function as an allegorical element, so unless you already agree with the film’s argument, you can simply dismiss it as leftist fantasy rather than an incisive critique of the modern world.

In essence, Sorry to Bother You wants to make viewers uncomfortable by confronting the racism and inequality of our current economic system, but it’s so absurd and disconnected from reality that any serious reflection robs the film of its edge. To be sure, it’s an ambitious film and will likely leave many viewers discomfited by the force of its racial accusations (there is one scene where Cassius is forced to perform a rap for his white coworkers that works as a better indictment of modern day racism than any of the fantastical conceits the film uses), but it cannot handle the thematic weight of its subject matter.

The film’s visual style is as ambitious as the themes. The bizarre locations and askew camera placements are reminiscent of the films of Terry Gilliam, especially Brazil. However, Riley shoots the film with a flatness that isn’t found in Gilliam’s films. The digital sheen makes some of the more fanciful visual elements come across as more fake that they ought to be, while in other scenes, the camera’s distance from the subject and low-angle makes the visual approach curiously dispassionate. The film wants to aggressively provoke the viewer, but the visual style often defangs this approach.

Perhaps I overstate the film’s uneven satire and other viewers will get more out of the scattershot, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to the themes. But it’s also unsatisfying as a narrative. Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, who plays his girlfriend Detroit, are great performers, but their characters have no dimension or depth. They’re not presented as straight caricatures, as most characters in satire are, but neither are they afforded the sort of emotional complexity that’ll make you genuinely sympathize with them. The actors do all the heavy lifting here and any sympathy with the characters is generated entirely by our familiarity with the actors. (For instance, I find it hard not to feel some affection for Cassius since I love Stanfield’s character, Darius, on Atlanta).

Only Armie Hammer, who arrives midway through as the film’s corporate villain, is given a genuinely satirical character. Not coincidentally, he’s also the actor having the most fun in the film, relishing every moment of exaggerated white corporate douchebaggery (I do find it odd that Armie Hammer seems to relish playing evil white men in Sundance hits so much, perhaps a function of wanting to undercut the fact that he comes from a family of rich, white business owners). 

Beyond the flat characters and visual style and the scattershot nature of the satire, Sorry to Bother You’s most fatal flaw is that it wants to have a happy ending. Riley’s position as a leftist ideologue overrides his role as a satirist. Since he truly believes that labour solidarity will solve many of the problems of the modern world, he cannot help but have his character make the right decision in the end and join his coworkers in righteous union action. Unfortunately, showing Cassius making the wrong choice would’ve done more to advance his argument. Instead, this relatively-happy and simplistic ending robs the film of its potency and undercuts the viciousness of its satirical edge. Satire is meant to diagnose, not proscribe, but it’s hard to be a satirist if you’re also a true believer in an ideology and Riley cannot resist the impulse to proselytize.

In the end, Sorry to Bother You presents so many of the myriad problems with our modern world and then presents an overly simple solution to these problems. I find it hard to believe in the simplistic resolution of Sorry to Bother You. Furthermore, satire is meant to present the horrors of the world in all their unfiltered ugliness, not offer a solution to them. That Sorry to Bother You wants to do both ultimately explains why it functions as neither effective satire nor satisfying narrative. It falls short in both measures.

4 out of 10

Sorry to Bother You (2018, USA)

Written and directed by Boots Riley; starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer.