2018 | rated R | starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Danny Glover, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews | written and directed by Boots Riley | 1hr 45mins |
Studio Pitch: The directorial debut of someone named Boots Riley!
Who is Boots Riley? A musician of some sort. I don’t know, but the entertainment world is abuzz about his directorial debut. He’s written and directed Sorry to Bother You, an incredibly imaginative movie brimming with ideas that takes us on a wild, if bumpy, ride. It may not always land and it may be a bit rough around the edges, but it’s a refreshing summer entry to put out around the bland franchise films.
Lakeith Stanfield plays Cassius Green, a regular joe down on his luck who gets a job at a sleazy telemarketing company, becomes a success and finds his morals questioned as he rises up the ranks and learns the secrets behind the golden elevator doors of power and prestige. It’s a traditional story structure that Riley fills with details ranging from the cute and quirky to the insane and ruthlessly satirical until the original structure is unrecognizable. Sorry is powered by the most creative and different choices at every opportunity – down to Cassius’ telemarketing job, where Riley shows the intrusion of with Cassius’ desk literally crashing into these people’s homes, to the White Voice that he and his co-worker Danny Glover use to keep suckers on the phone – which Riley has white actors like David Cross, Patton Oswalt and Lilly James dubbed into the scene.
Riley does a great job of strapping us in for an upward climb and unfolding dizzying heights of absurdity as we go. Just when the movie can’t get any weirder, it does with a bullet. He’s also built out Cassius’ world, a quirky version of Oakland shifted through a satirical funhouse mirror where everything is run by the WorryFree corporation (a program that lets you live a worry free life and provides 3 hots and a cot to do it), the most popular show on TV is an American Idol game show where people get the s***t punched out of them and the oddball corporate culture of the RegalView telemarketing company. Sorry doesn’t move in a straight line and elsewhere in the story we have Cassius’ girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) staging performance art to fight WorryFree and the man and telemarketer Squeeze (Steven Yuhn) leading a call to unionize RegalView. It’s a bit Charlie Kaufman by way of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy – which is the level at which Riley aims all of these creative bullets. Ultimately, instead of saying something new about the human condition Sorry simply says that people are dumb, the culture is shallow and companies are evil and greedy- it’s all a bit on the nose.
Like Idiocracy, Sorry’s pointed satire and inventive ideas seem to outrun it’s ability to put together a smooth, solid movie. Like Judge’s cult favorite Sorry’s crazy reveals will probably be what it’s remembered for instead of some shoddy mechanics. Pace is an issue here, the movie feels like it jerks around, instead of flowing together. Bigger, many of the jokes don’t quite land, falling into a chasm where they are weird for the sake of weird. Even that ideas that are funny wither on the vine. The first scene starts with a hilarious idea – that Cassius has brought a high school trophy and clutches an Employee of the Month plaque into a job interview. It’s great, but Riley skips past it before really nailing the laugh.
I’m not really worried about overhyping Sorry to Bother You’s weirdness. Riley has cooked up an insane third act that leaps beyond anything its presented before that should live up to it. Riley touches on a lot here – race relations, capitalism, reality shows and viral memes – but he also uses quirk instead of saying something new about them. His singular vision is undeniable and, if nothing else, this should be the first in a career that will only get honed and get better in future films. It’s a bit scattershot, but would I much rather watch this – and more movies like it – than another superhero movie? Absolutely.