A couple nights back I went to see Sorry To Bother You, the feature film debut from writer and director Raymond Lawrence Riley aka Boots Riley. I have to admit, despite the critical praise the film has received in the past few weeks I was afraid this would be yet another movie where my opinion and the opinions of the professional critics diverge. As it turns out I needn’t have worried: Riley has crafted a world that is both a hilarious satire and a biting reflection of modern day American culture. Still, I am by no means a professional film critic, and I knew as I walked out of there that this would be a hard film for me to talk about.
And so, I decided to say “screw it” and just list off the things I enjoyed the movie – some more comprehensive than others – in no particular order. I’ll try to avoid spoilers where I can, as I believe this movie is best experienced by going in blind and just letting the absurdity take you where it will. That said, let’s jump right in.
1.) Lakeith Stanfield plays our main character Cassius “Cash” Green, an ordinary guy who is thrust into a world that is growing slowly and steadily more insane, and Stanfield freaking nails it. I had seen him do some excellent work in the similarly surreal TV show Atlanta, but it’s this role and this character that really gives Stanfield a chance to shine. His character starts off very mild and unassuming, just taking life as it comes at him and wondering aloud to himself and his friends about whether or not anything they do in life matters. He looks like he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders through pretty much the entire movie, even as he begins to attain a measure of success in his life there is always a haunted look in his eyes, knowing that nothing good coming to him is without a cost.
2.) The way Cash just seems to accept the world around him and his role in life makes it easier for the audience to accept the world he operates in, psychotic as it may seem. It helps ease us into things, even when this is a world where the most popular thing on television is a show where people literally get the s**t kicked out of them. Honestly, looking at the state of television right now it’s not that much of a stretch to see something like that coming down the pipe in the next decade or so. Over the past couple years we’ve gotten pretty good at “normalizing” craziness, whether through serious analysis or more often through our comedy, we just accept this is the way the world works now. Still, just as Cash and the audience are beginning to get a grasp on things, when the other shoe drops – and trust me, you’ll know when it drops – it was shocking enough to send shivers down my spine. It’s been a long time since I got a shock to my system like that, and that credit belongs equally to both Stanfield’s acting and Boots Riley’s keen direction. Bravo sirs. Bravo.
3.) I’d also like to acknowledge Tessa Thompson and herexcellent work here as Cash’s girlfriend Detroit, a woman who is firmly opposed to the current world order. I was afraid going in that Detroit might end up being a generic girlfriend character who patiently puts up with her boyfriend’s drama, trying to bring him back over to the light side, and always being right about everything. In “reality”, Detroit doesn’t have all the answers. She makes mistakes just like everyone else in the movie; her attempts to wake people out of their stupor through her artwork or her earrings come off as more style than substance. Though her work lacks a certain polish, there’s no denying she cares about changing the system, and it’s refreshing to watch an artist who doesn’t totally know how to do the right thing but does it anyway.
4.) As long as I’m dishing out kudos to the actors I’ll also single out Armie Hammer for his disturbing turn here as Steve Lift, the CEO of WorryFree, who is both ridiculously charismatic and undeniably evil. I mean, he says he’s not evil, and it’s hard not to blame him when the rest of the world enables him to do whatever he wants, no matter how perverse it may come across. He’s been part of this corrupted world for so long and has gotten so good at playing the game that he doesn’t even realize just how far gone he is, a dark reflection of what Cash could become if he doesn’t change his ways soon.
5.) I’ll admit I was worried that casting completely different people as the “white voices” the characters use – voices provided by David Cross, Patton Oswalt, and Lily James – might take me out of the film. I suppose I was worried that the dubbing of their voices over the actual actors might take away from their performances somehow. While there was still some initial skepticism I found that after the first few times it really didn’t take me out of the film too much, and in truth the intended effect was most likely to make me uncomfortable, so I guess congratulations are in order?
6.) One visual trick I really enjoyed happened early on when Cash is really starting to get into his position as a telemarketer, and the movie shows Cash literally dropping in to people’s homes. His desk, his computer, everything is being dropped unceremoniously right in the middle of people’s living rooms, and it is not a pretty landing. I thought this did a really good job not just communicating how invasive this telemarketing calls are for people but also the anxiety that Cash is experiencing as he tries desperately to make it work. It’s hard for me to believe that this is Boots Riley’s first time directing as he pulls off these little visual tricks with aplomb.
7.) A quick aside: I had no idea who Boots Riley was before I saw this movie; it was only after I got home and looked him up that I discovered just how prolific he has been as an artist and working as a political activist. There’s definitely a confidence radiating off this movie, I can’t imagine anyone who wasn’t adamant about what they believe in going down some of the paths this movie chooses to take. If nothing else it has been fascinating for me to learn more about him and his life, and for that alone this movie would have been worth the experience. Fortunately though the movie is good too.
8.) It’s funny that I found myself thinking a lot about the clothes certain characters wore during this movie, despite the fact that I’ve really never paid much attention to that sort of thing in the past. When Cash starts out in the lower levels of the telemarketing offices I noticed a lot of the supervisor characters wearing wrinkled button-down shirts with garishly colored ties, some of them seemingly one size too big or too small, a look I can only describe as “professionally unprofessional”. It made the whole bland office set up somehow even more sad to watch, though again I don’t know if that’s just me or not.
9.) Admittedly, this one is purely surface level enjoyment for me, at least when I was watching it at the time.
There’s just something about fast movements mixed with over-sized cardboard props that tickles me, I guess. Thinking about it now though it could easily slot in with the other quick, flashy, and borderline exploitative means of grabbing people’s attention that the bigger companies sometimes employ. On a completely separate note, am I the only one who thinks sign twirling would translate really well to an anime? Maybe some kind of shonen battle style premise where sign twirlers have dance-off battles in the streets. Have I thought about this too much, or not enough? Moving on.
10.) It may not surprise you to hear this but Boots Riley, the long-time rapper founding member of the Coup, has done some pretty awesome music. I have now listened to this particular song, titled OYAHYTT, about ten times in a row and it still gets my blood pumping. The drums, the trumpets, the vocals, it all comes together to create a bombastic sound. My only complain is that it isn’t longer. Give it a listen if you need a quick shot of adrenaline or you just want something to tap your foot to.
That’s about all I really wanted to cover this time around, hopefully I can find time to get into some deeper analysis in the future. Still, I hope you found something in this rambling list that piqued your interest enough to give Sorry To Bother You a try; it gets my highest recommendation.