Assuming you aren’t working tirelessly for a publication dedicated to putting out as many pieces and reviews as possible, Sundance must feel like refreshing break from the world with its idyllic, fantastical wintry Park City, Utah setting. Even if you are a journalist covering the endless, no doubt tiring festivities, it must be nice not to, for a brief moment, worry too much about exponentially superfluous awards coverage while watching the latest in exciting film – and probably imbibing more than a few beverages.
It’s work, but also hopefully pleasure, especially as you share the experience with individuals looking for the same retreat as you. Cinematic paradise, it seems. And then movies like Sorry to Bother You provide the aggressive, but necessary reminder that true escape from reality is futile.
Give first-time writer-director Boots Riley some credit: his debut certainly isn’t any sleep aid. How could it be as a film that becomes more gradually ferocious with its subtly gut-punching racial satire the further it spirals down through the gauntlets of absurdist lunacy? Like Jordan Peele’s Get Out before it, Sorry to Bother You is a proverbial genre-mashing wake-up call for the generations leading the way in the continued prevalence of overdue progressive ideals, from a creator of a generation whose righteous indignation and cries for accountability weren’t afforded the same positive press attention. It is a raging political fire ignited not by gasoline, but rather mass quantities of Uma Thurman-reviving epinephrine.
Also, but not to a lesser degree, it’s weird as hell, fittingly depicting a hellish alternative reality that resembles one of the earliest tick marks on Mike Judge’s intellectual-post-apocalypse Idiocracy timeline. What begins and initially continues as a radical send-up of reality pushed to the point of parody very swiftly becomes a gonzo sci-fi quasi-Marxist nightmare, and white-Millennial entrepreneurial late capitalism is the scary boogeyman. Honestly, some scenes and aspects of Riley’s existentially terrifying world here might feel more fitting in an outright parody than genuine satire and brush up against the latter identity a little too roughly, but Riley often uses shifts between the two comedic styles and subsequent tonal whiplash to his advantage – mostly.
If those last two paragraphs were a cavalcade of information and redundant comparisons too difficult to gulp down in one go, then you have an idea for what watching this film feels like in its final third, though it’s arguably even more abrasive. With the particular names attached and as an undoubted byproduct of predominant left-wing mindsets prolonging awareness for welcome and cathartic narratives regarding racial inequality, including its ties to economic inequality, it isn’t a wonder why or how Sorry to Bother You got made, though it will melt your mind trying to grasp how anything this batshit insane, or indeed this staunchly anti-capitalist, was granted a semblance of a wide release – its current theater count is 805 after opening with a limited 16-theater premiere a week ago.
This film is nothing short of seething with boiling anger, and at times, Riley harnesses that confrontational approach into a focused lecture not meant for easy consumption. Our protagonist Cassius “Cash” Green, proving Lakeith Stanfield’s rapidly rising star power, begins in the film as an existentially-despairing 20-something starting out as a telemarketer – his girlfriend Detroit, played by the ever-arresting Tessa Thompson, often jokes about his “sun will explode” mentality – and appropriately, the film’s primary thesis seems to revolve around questions of black identity; rather, what it means to be black within the framework of a modern capitalist economy. What is the truest sense of self, as Cash improbably climbs the corporate ladder, amending, even relegating his blackness for the sake of employing a ‘white voice.’
This hero’s journey in and of itself, though inevitably ending with his character coming back to the resistance he had formerly renounced for success and purpose after witnessing the unseen evils of industry, is where Riley’s work is at its strongest and most cohesive. The climax and one particular scene in the final act where Cash willingly debases his humanity for the sake of spreading an urgent message is where the debutante showcases an effective, if disturbing balance between savage humor and unsettling horror. Some sequences become poetic shorthand for the real-life indignities engendered by various sources of white violence, while many others do the same for the inherent interconnectedness of culturally ingrained racism, economic status and class hierarchies.
The narrative may become a little too hyperactive as the tendrils of its core philosophical insight branch further away into areas of sometimes tenuously connected sub-commentary that push and pull the story in all sorts of jarring directions, but most of the time, Riley capably reins in his ambitions for a relatively streamlined narrative without diluting his peculiar storytelling’s potency. Unfortunately, the occasional moments that stray too far are often the ones that bring the pacing down, and when the narrative gets back on track, it produces a choppy stop-start effect that somewhat negatively alters both how we consume the narrative and how it progresses, often exacerbated by strange, sometimes off-putting edits and scene transitions that indicate technical smoothness wasn’t the first priority.
But, additionally aside from a denouement that feels like it arrives 10 to 15 minutes too soon, adding to the feelings of an unnecessarily jolting narrative structure casually spinning us through a whirlwind of unanswered ideas apart from the primary question, Sorry to Bother You keeps its sanity where we might not. Riley’s is a concept so admirably sure of itself and confident we’ll remain ensnared in its clutches, and thankfully it sees out its first bonkers twist through to a casually madcap final set-piece and bleak, though comedically played final shot – not counting the mid-credits scene. Composure is a good trait for any film to possess, but even avoiding being too shaky will do just fine.
Hopefully, the future has much more planned for Riley and his wildly unique vision outside of his music-making endeavors with The Coup – and apparently there is at least a little something on the horizon. For now, it’s safe to say that not only did his, among other selected features, successfully interrupt the cold, snowy calm of Sundance, but also the usually benign blockbuster madness of summer. America, here’s your latest wake-up call; you probably shouldn’t hang up, though.