Film Review: The Surreal and the Macabre Elevate the Comedy of “Sorry to Bother You”

Film poster: “Sorry to Bother You”

Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley, 2018) 3½ out of 4 stars.

Hip-hop musician Boots Riley showcases his natural talents as a filmmaker with his debut feature film Sorry to Bother You, starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, and Jermaine Fowler. In an alternate present-day depiction of Oakland, California, Stanfield plays Cassius Green, a young man struggling to lead a life that will make some kind of a noticeable impact on the world or at the very least on his girlfriend, the politically driven artist Detroit (Thompson). However, life seems to be looking up for Cassius when he lands a telemarketing job at the shady Regal View, where he receives sage advice from co-worker Danny Glover: if you want to make some real money, use your white voice.

Boots Riley balances the intrigue of his surreal and macabre Oakland and the extraordinary relatability of his protagonist like a seasoned director. He eases the audience into the unpredictable laws of this world instead of shoving them into the deep end without life jackets. Riley understands comedy is a great crutch to lean on if you want to teach the mass public complex ideas of racial expectations, the morality of corporations, and the unionization of mistreated workers. The fantastical differences of this world from our own start small and somewhere in the background. By the end of the second act, we understand these seemingly pointless exercises in otherworldly imagery are in fact extensions of the film’s characters and their own trials and tribulations.

Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson in SORRY TO BOTHER YOU ©Annapurna Pictures

Lakeith Stanfield is a wonderful leading man and his Cassius Green is the universal Everyman for every generation to proudly proclaim as its champion. Stanfield and Tessa Thompson share great scenes of verbal dueling as their own respective lives start to go in different directions. Cassius’ climb up the corporate ladder raises genuine concern in his girlfriend Detroit and friends, played by Jermaine Fowler and The Walking Dead alum Steven Yeun. This turn in a familiar character arc is given a breath of complexity as Cassius notices Detroit make the same decisions in her career that would be considered acts of selling out.

A major shift occurs in the third act as Riley kicks Sorry to Bother You into 10th gear. The overall surreal and goofy nature of the film will already make serious crossroads for each audience member, but the final 30 minutes is still a whole other kind of beast. In hindsight, acts one and two serve as a somewhat gradual transition from weird to disturbing. If this film must be given negative criticism then let’s say that the twist in the third act is so jarring that what remains of Cassius’ story afterwards never reaches the same cinematic punch. Still, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You is bold and innovative. If the film’s tone and style prevent a person from enjoying it then, amidst the endless sequels and new cinematic franchises in Hollywood, let the film continue to circulate and serve as a gleaming beacon of the originality of the modern American film industry.

Lakeith Stanfield and Steven Yeun in SORRY TO BOTHER YOU ©Annapurna Pictures

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About Patrick Howard

Patrick Howard has been a cinephile since age seven. Alongside 10 years of experience in film analysis and criticism, he is a staunch supporter of all art forms and believes their influence and legacy over human culture is vital. Mr. Howard takes the time to write his own narrative stories when he can.
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