Sorry to Bother You

‘Sorry to Bother You’ Review: Not Worth the Bother

'Sorry to Bother You'

Movie Rating:

1.5

I’m sorry, ‘Sorry to Bother You’, but I just didn’t like you very much. I’m sure a lot of the problem is down to me. I saw you mid festival at Sundance earlier this year, where you were one among many films dealing with similar issues of justice, be they racial or economic, and simply found your scattershot, over-the-top farcical tone unable to bridge the gap between having fun with serious situations and making a sly, political point through humor that doesn’t devolve into polemicism.

I get that I’m a rare voice not extolling your virtues. Many have hailed you as some sort of instant classic, a brazen debut by your rapper-turned-director, Boots Riley. The story of your auteur is a fascinating one – Raymond Riley was raised by parents heavily involved in anti-racism movements and progressive political organizations. Riley’s music has been celebrated for its narrative and near-cinematic scope, drawing audiences into the storylines and putting us into the minds of his central characters. It’s a rare talent not to be underappreciated.

Yet with your script that Riley has carefully crafted, I found the hook doesn’t stick. We’re dealing with big, heavy ideas here – slavery, capitalism, racism, identity politics – and as the film plays out, they all get conflated into a mishmash of societal ills that spice up what’s fundamentally a pretty superficial sci-fi conceit. It’s fun that you take a bit of ‘Office Space’ and focus on a rage far more complex. Yet like the worst of the stretched-out skits on late night comedy shows, this feels like a gag gone too far, trying to do too many things at once and never hitting the mark with any of them.

As a film tackling code-switching directly, there was so much promise. Having your phone operator characters at a call center take on a “white voice” is an overt recrimination of what it means to be of a particular identity, and how removed from physical or visual contact certain aspects that divide us can be circumvented. As a narrative that deals with such broad issues as class, race, masculinity and political power, you do manage to go a long way to address them all, perhaps most successfully when you equate wage slavery with actual indentured work, a bold and provocative move that fuels much of the opening portion of your storyline. I was almost with you, dear ‘Sorry to Bother You’. While not every joke stuck and every barb hit its mark, I still had a hope that it would all come together.

Much of my hope was raised by the casting of Lakeith Stanfield, a fine performer who brings a laconic sensibility to his role as “Cash” Green. Echoing some of his tics from playing Snoop Dog in ‘Straight Outta Compton’, his performance has a hazy, drifting quality that gave an even more dream-like tone to your story. He’s giving his all in this role, but when things go off the rails and the constituent parts fly off in all directions, even his charms and skills can’t seem to keep it all together.

It’s this cataclysm of a conclusion that most irked me about you, dear ‘Sorry to Bother You’. It’s as if the only way to make sense of the nonsensical was to out-crazy it all, to take things to a level of preposterousness that was meant to elevate your scathing satire into a weaponized farce. Instead, you just lost me. The ‘Tank Girl’-like conspiracy elements were a major distraction from the real issues that you bring up early on. Worse, it feels like an easy escape, diminishing the very points you made at the outset, giving general audiences a larger-than-life tale to further distance their own behavior from that of the bad guys on screen.

And this is the part that really eats at me about you, ‘Sorry to Bother You’. By taking things so over-the-top, you in many ways deflect from our shared responsibility to tackle these issues by no longer having us see ourselves in any of the characters, be they the protagonists or nefarious “bad guys.” The result is so disparate, so heightened, that it provides vicarious thrills without the sense of reflection about these issues you surely were wanting to occur. It’s a fine line, I grant, and only a few masterpieces like ‘Blazing Saddles’ have managed to amp up the farce but still make their points about such horrific elements of American culture without sliding into becoming maudlin, dumbed-down comedies.

Maybe I’m wanting too much from you, ‘Sorry to Bother You’. Maybe I was hoping for a film you were never going to be, or maybe I’m too locked into a desire for a film with more coherence, rather than a smattering of elements that never coalesce in anything other than mood setting while brushing against bigger ideas and issues. I wanted to not just appreciate you and and be entertained by you, I wanted to love to you, to go along for the ride and find in your whimsy and your caustic recontextualisation of contemporary culture a biting, brilliant satire.

Instead, I was left saddened and annoyed, hearing in the unrestrained laughter of my fellow audience members no sense of self-reflection at the myriad of injustices that you touch upon. We don’t need such a conspiratorial conceit to see how systemic disparities continue to plague, and I believe such over-the-top madness simply distances us from the true horrors rather than doing what’s clearly desired, crafting a parable for modern life through the example of excess.

So, once again, I’m sorry that I didn’t love you, ‘Sorry to Bother You’. I hope you understand I wanted to, and maybe in time I’ll be able to take what you’ve given me without my own predilections getting in the way of your charms. Yet because I so desperately desired your acerbic wit to illuminate and not just attempt to entertain, I found the clowning around tiresome, the conspiratorial elements distracting and the pacing inconsistent. I wish I was part of the celebration that almost everyone seems to be having with you, wishing I could just let my concerns abate and enjoy the fun. But that’s the part of you I found the most discomfiting and why I wish your conceit had been more tightly focused on a work that could speak to a broad audience but never sacrifice the precision of your satire in favor of the goofy or the bombastic. These issues are too important to be given further reason to be distanced from, and rather than surgically using your comedy, I found the heightened silliness a dangerous distraction.

I wish you nothing but the best on your journey, as audiences will surely find something to love about you. I’m sorry it just didn’t work out between us.

13 comments

  1. Bolo

    Looking forward to seeing this one. The trailer made it feel like something along the lines of ‘Repo Man’, and I could definitely use a movie like that now.

  2. DarthGilman

    “, this feels like a gag gone too far, trying to do too many things at once and never hitting the mark with any of them”…
    “I found the clowning around tiresome, ” Tell me, Jason, was it as tiresome as a review written in the form a conversion an adult is having with the film? And that film is treated by said reviewer like a naive child, who the reviewer critic-splains why not only he didn’t like the movie, but that he was “saddened and annoyed” that other people in the theater dared to enjoy the movie they were seeing? Did the film come as self-important and patronizing as all that? If you didn’t like the film, fine, but spare us your “I’m soooooo disappointed that others could overlook your banality and base humor, but sadly I cannot” elitist crap. It’s not useful, insightful, or remotely entertaining.

    • Jason Gorber
      Author

      I admit that “critic-splains” is a fascinating dig – I take it you also find those annoying “doctor-splains” discussions when seeking treatment? Damn elites always dropping knowledge like they know stuff elitely.

      Thanks for reading!

      • Russell

        I understood what you meant: you wanted to like the film as much as the rest of the audience but were unable to, which made it hard to enjoy.

      • DarthGilman

        ” also find charges of childishness” I guess basic reading comprehension wasn’t part of your BA. I didn’t accuse YOU of childishness, I took issue with you of writing a review in the style an adult talking to the film as though it were a child- i.e you were mocking the film in a patronizing manner and, by extension, the filmmakers and anyone who liked it. I found that approach tiresome, condescending, and not at all as clever a device as you clearly thought it was. Also, if I go to a doctor and he treats me like an idiot, sure I will call him out. Just because he has specific training doesn’t mean my concerns and questions should be brushed off with “Well, I’m the doctor so don’t you worry your pretty little head about it.” Assuming that because someone has extra letters after their name on their business card doesn’t mean they know everything about everything (as Ben Carson proves every day). I have a science background, so I don’t want an answer, I want the process. I want him to “show his work” and know that he’s not just guessing. Ask a surgeon how to treat your failing heart and he’ll likely suggest surgery. Ask a dietician the same question and they’ll likely recommend changing your diet. Just because you did not like something that other audience members enjoyed, doesn’t mean that the other audience members were less sophisticated (i.e. they’re too stupid to know better) than yourself as you constantly implied in your review. Based on the film’s reception, I’d say a fair number of film critics with pedigrees as good or more impressive than your own liked it quite a bit. You could have just said you didn’t like it and WHY instead of adopting your air of faux sophistication. I loved Roger Ebert’s (do YOU have a Pulitzer?) reviews for the simple reason that even if I didn’t always agree with his tastes (I could never figure out his love of Russ Meyer), I could usually tell why he did or didn’t like something and whether that would translate to my own tastes. Your review was more interested in presenting yourself as having more sophisticated tastes and not on what you like or didn’t like in the movie. Based on your review, I have no idea if I will like this movie or not. Instead, I just have to trust you that it is not worth seeing because “you’re the critic”. You’re recommending surgery when I would like to know why surgery is better than say medication or changing my eating habits. So don’t get upset with ME when I want to get a second opinion.

  3. njscorpio

    I believe a really great movie can be pitched just with one sentense, surmising the ending. Frankly anybody can come up with an interesting premise, it’s all about how you stick the landing.

  4. Ryan

    I have a feeling this one is going to go the way of Black Panther….a good movie that gets incredibly overhyped for racial reasons. Which would also explain why you felt the need to apologize for not liking it.

  5. BigScreenB

    I appreciate this review, having recently seen the movie, and emerging the theater with a “Huh?” It had great bits and wonderful actors but no underlying logic (must have that) to the chaos.

  6. I don’t understand this review. “Conspiracy?” Have you read Marx? Are you familiar with transhumanism? I thought this was a very plausible mash-up of Capital and Blade Runner, with a little zoological twist. The entire system of global, supply-chain capitalism is race-to-the-bottom exploitation–how many movies show that? How many movies show the clear-cut complicity of socially mobile persons of color? How many movies show political resistance to all of that? NONE–that’s how many.

    This “over-the-top” approach was strategic–it’s called magical realism, and what you lose in quotidian analysis, you gain in symbolic resonance. I think “Sorry to Bother You” is an amazingly cinematic re-mythologization of the eternal call for social justice, and a certain reference point for politically militant cinema in years to come.

  7. The wonderfulness of the “over-the-top” is that this viewer thought it couldn’t get more bizarre than it did, and then it does. A film critic friend of mine called it “brilliant, ramshackle dystopian sf-comedy. That said, some folks in the audience definitely laughed more than others, Comedy may be universal but of course we experience it quite differently.

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