Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Review: "Sorry to Bother You" is the Funniest and Smartest Head Trip of the Year

Scene from Sorry to Bother You
There is a scene in the second act that perfectly summarizes the experience of watching director Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You. In the scene, millionaire playboy Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) is seen snorting a line of cocaine that stretches to absurd length. It's a comedic moment, but it's also one that captures the film perfectly. To witness the magic of Riley's ribald anti-capitalist satire is to feel like you're high, about to experience the whirlwind of metaphors stuck in a distorted world view of a lower class man living in Oakland, CA. It keeps spinning faster and faster as Riley's band The Coup swirls a disorienting soundscape into this confection. If it doesn't make you wonder "What did I just see?" then you weren't paying attention. Even then, it's in the moments of "altered states" where the answers appear, in an abstract collage of contemporary society that looks real, but is warped and surreal. It's a beautiful creation that solidifies Lakeith Stanfield as one of the great young actors, and most of all proves that the world is insane, and it takes a person with a watchful eye like Riley to get it oh so right.

Cassius "Cash" Green (Stanfield) is a desperate man who lives in a garage, drives a bucket, and is months behind on rent to his uncle (Terry Crews). It's the perfect set-up for a get rich quick scheme, or in this case a gig at a telemarketing agency that doesn't care about his credentials - as fake as they may be - so long as he gets the sales. It's here that the title Sorry to Bother You fits into the equation, especially as Cash's phone calls drop him literally into the rooms of his customers, whether they're innocent elderly women or Japanese businessmen on the john. Riley's ability to pull back the divide presented by a telephone causes the experience to reveal the first awkwardness between telemarketing and "the real world" where the customers live. However, the artifice becomes more artificial when he's forced to use a "white voice" (in Stanfield's case: David Cross). He has sold his soul for the sake of making rent and a better life, but really... is it all worth it?

That question is where Riley finds the most interest in, especially as he explores radical groups like The Left Eyes, who oppose the controversial actions of the company WorryFree who provide their customer a laidback experience. He also dates artist Detroit (Tessa Thompson), who is draped in her own art, such as fancy, expressionistic earrings and an art show that takes the actress to some of her strangest, most delightful moments yet. Together, it's a surreal vision of modern America as seen through the world of Cash, who is losing his grip on reality. His white voice overpowers him. Riley replaces the aged blackface concept by replacing it with white voices - sometimes disorienting in its disconnection from the actor's appearance - as a form of racial commentary. While there are black people hocking merchandise at a company that "S.T.T.S." (stick to the script), the reality is that there's a need for comfort in capturing the white experience. Even the brief role by Danny Glover plays as a magical negro trope, revealing a world beyond which Cash understands. If you can pander to the customers, the sky's the limit.

But where's the limits of pandering? Riley tries to explore capitalism through a performance that is rooted in initial ignorance but forms horror. The film's style is grounded in a realism with traces of surrealism along the fringes. Early on it's asked that the viewer looks in the background, understand more than what's literally being sold. It becomes difficult because the higher that Riley's metaphors get, the more that the film takes the viewers into a cocaine high that illuminates the absurd connection between Cash's place in real life (such as to Detroit) and to the impersonal world of business (such as to Lift). The film clearly has been paying attention to the recent news stories, especially those of economic and racial protests, and uses every tool to an indulgent, vulgar effect that is seen as the cocaine high disappearing. In its place is the withdrawal, the reality that the real world needs to change for the better. It's a film about activism, but also its contradictions in a society motivated by capitalism. Nobody can live without Cash. He's essential to society whether as consumer or buyer, protester or investor. 

Stanfield's performance grounds the movie in part because of how nuanced he comes across. The Get Out and Atlanta actor continues his streak of brilliantly weird performances by becoming at times comatose. He is an observer of the chaos and tries to guide his path. The only issue is that those who love him can't pay his bills, but those who pay him only use him for his novelty as a black man. Cash's face slowly becomes more compelling to watch as the film continues, especially as the ignorance wears off and all that's left is his defeated disappointment. He embodies a modern American, incapable of living outside the system. It helps that Thompson's Detroit is also a powerful performance that is as radical as it comes. Her style is all her own, and she brings a sharpness that cuts through Cash's nonsense with precision. Even Hammer continues to prove his underrated capabilities as he plays a sniveling jerk of Jeff Bezos-level charm who is hilarious the more disturbing that he gets. 

Riley's film has been in the works for so long that it makes sense why every detail feels like it was looked over a dozen times. Every background gag feels purposeful in capturing something timely about society. Most of all, his jump from music to screen plays just as rhythmically like a dance between budding principles. He is a confrontational filmmaker who tries to shock the audience, but not without realizing that the world is insane, and that's hilarious. There's a cutting humor to every second of the film that makes the commentary easier to withstand, but also harder. The darker moments of the film definitely make it hard to laugh, but it's just too absurd to handle otherwise. It's important to take everything on an equal footing and try to understand why the world is the way that it is. It is an experience film, and one that strangles the viewer into remembering it, even if the controversial third act doesn't sit right.

Sorry to Bother You is one of 2018's greatest directorial debuts and one of the most original films of the summer. It helps that the film has a lot to say about contemporary society, but it's even more incredible to think that it takes a familiar story into unexpected directions. The film will get you high, and you will feel the withdrawals as the jokes become deathly serious. But even then, to be immersed in this world is to know exactly what the film's title means. It wishes to call you up, drop into your home - possibly even your bedroom - and sell you an important message in a way that's both juvenile and profound. The only question now is whether you'll pick up the phone and accept it. If you do, just know that things won't be the same once the closing credits start. 

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