'Sorry to Bother You'
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.