LFF 2018: Sorry to Bother You Review
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It’s easy to see why Sorry to Bother You made such a splash upon its release across the pond earlier this year. At a time when the inequalities caused by the capitalist system are becoming more apparent, and more crucial to stateside political discourse, Boots Riley’s film has tapped into the growing unease of how workers are exploited by heartless corporations - turning that angry political sentiment into an unruly satire that couldn’t be more of the moment if it tried.
But whereas these socialist sentiments are still new ground for the vast majority of Americans, internationally, the ideas presented in the film aren’t as novel. Sure, they’re presented with an audacious surrealism, updating many of the themes previously displayed in Robert Downey’s 1969 advertising satire Putney Swope, with a similar appreciation for spiralling non-sequiturs. But take away Riley’s penchant for joke writing and visual sensibility, cribbing from Michel Gondry and Edgar Wright as he packs every frame with as many sight gags as he can muster, and you’re left with a simplistic, obvious political sentiment that doesn’t evolve with the increasingly nonsensical story around it.
In a vaguely dystopian Oakland, California, Cash (Lakeith Stanfield) is struggling to find work, and gets a job at telemarketing company RegalView in order to pay the bills. He’s living in his uncle’s garage with his equally broke conceptual artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), but after staring work at RegalView, discovers a hidden talent - he can put on a “white voice” and make money from every customer he calls. He grows successful at the company; whereas his colleagues are underpaid and form a union, he becomes a “power caller”, and gets inducted into the shadier world of business, where the few people at the top get to exploit the many.
As somebody with politics firmly on the left, I agree with Riley’s socio-political critiques - but it becomes apparent that when the jokes are stripped out, they never really add up to anything more than “capitalism leads to inequality, join a union”. These basic ideas that are far from groundbreaking outside of the US, especially in a country where over 12 million people voted for a socialist party in the last general election. When Sorry to Bother You goes in an even stranger, more ridiculous direction in its third act, it doesn’t even let its simple central thesis evolve with the craziness. It feels oddly devoid of political substance, with commentary on tangentially related subjects ranging from gentrification to race relations all reduced to zany scenes with no consequences on the overarching plot.
Which leads to the film’s bigger problem: its struggle to properly integrate Tessa Thompson’s character. She’s somewhat forcibly included as something approaching an audience surrogate to this uncaring world, and yet doesn’t possess any defining characteristics outside of voicing in humanistic terms whatever themes Riley wants to address in any given moment. The film wants us to earnestly care about her relationship with Cash, even as the world becomes more heightened around them - it doesn’t ring true, and she feels like the manifestation of four years (the screenplay was originally drafted in 2014) of production notes asking Riley to make the film more “accessible” to mainstream audiences.
Which isn’t to say Sorry to Bother You is bad. In terms of gag rate, the film offers Adult Swim-inflected laughs for the vast majority of its runtime, from the weirdness of a TV show called "I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!”, to a third act stop motion sequence that, well, has to be seen to be believed. It doesn’t add up to a satisfying, coherent whole, but purely on a scene by scene basis, his gags land - and make his foray into forced weirdness in the third act feel all the more frustrating as a result. Nothing foreshadows the later developments, and it feels like a bizarre plot point included purely because Riley had no idea how to end a screenplay about a dystopian capitalist society.