Skip to main content

You have a white voice in there. You can use it.

Sorry to Bother You
(2018)

(SPOILERS) There’s a cumulative fatigue accompanying Sorry to Bother You, akin to readily agreeing to sign a petition only to be immediately subjected to a ten-minute tirade detailing all the reasons you should sign said petition. Boots Riley’s film can boast several great performances (in particular, Lakeith Stanfield, marvellously deadpan in the lead role), is intermittently very funny, has an appealing visual flair and a deftly complementary soundtrack (courtesy of Tune-Yards and Riley’s The Coup), but by the time it’s done, you’ve more than had enough. And that’s without including the horse-men.

The setup is confident and energised, as Stanfield’s Cash, living in uncle Terry Crews’ garage, gets himself a job in the most soul-sucking industry there is, telemarketing, and proceeds to rise swiftly through the ranks owing to his precise appropriation of a too-perfect white salesman voice (advice on this comes courtesy of Danny Glover, the voice courtesy of David Cross). You can see hints of other corporate satires in here, ranging from Office Space to How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying, but there are also other warning signs that the whole may be less sharp than the upward path of its central player. Riley encumbers Cash with an artist girlfriend (the ubiquitous Tessa Thompson, who is reaching the point where the pick of the roles have exceeded her range) who ticks all the obvious boxes of satires of modern art – complete with an admittedly amusingly confrontational performance art show – and the attentions of a union activist (Steven Yeun) striving for telemarketers’ rights. If the same wit was on display in these subplots, all would be well, but Riley, hailing from activist roots, tends to play these elements either straight or with sledgehammer subtlety.

Nevertheless, there’s much to chuckle at in the adulation Cash receives from his bosses for his star sales turns, and he’s quickly sent upstairs via a lift with an impossible to remember pass key to become a “power caller”. Here he discovers he’s engaging in out-and-out corporate slavery, enlisting those working (having signed away their lives for a roof over their heads) for CEO Armie Hammer’s Worry Free to various other corporations, and you realise Riley has backed himself into a cul-de-sac of soapboxing. Rather than an open-ended satire like Brazil, this is closer to the blunt tool of Robocop 2. Everything is surface level, right down to the equine sapiens providing a boost to the labour requirements of client firms (but still, they have horse dicks). Indeed, their inclusion is the least interesting development Riley could have introduced, as if he scheduled a last-minute script conference with Seth Rogen for the political acumen the boorish oaf could bring to the table.

Riley’s visual sense ensures the picture always looks interesting – when he calls them, up, Cash crashes into the living space of his potential clients – and takes on an appropriately nightmarish hue as Cash’s path proceeds inevitably hell-wards, but there’s an increasingly obvious picking of targets (the racial stereotyping Cash is subjected to when asked to rap for his mostly white co-party guests, and their blithe shouting along with him; the TV show I Just Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me, in which contestants are beaten up then dipped in shit) even as you chuckle along. I think perhaps I ended up feeling disappointed because Sorry to Bother You begins with so much potential, like an Alex Cox picture circa Repo Man, but somehow ends up closer to a Michel Gondry film not written by Charlie Kaufman.

Riley seems to be suggesting that, however broad Sorry to Bother You’s satire goes, it still won’t be able to compete with actual events (when Cash blows the whistle on the horse men, Hammer’s CEO is hailed as a visionary; there’d probably be a few more layers to that in reality, such as a merger/change of branding, public outrage turning to indifference turning to acceptance, and the CEO returning to the fore having done nominal penance), but the coda, whereby Cash only forsakes a return to the relative comfort of his old life because he’s turning into a horse, might have been a little sharper if the metaphor wasn’t the bluntest since Alexander Payne’s Downsizing.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

No time to dilly-dally, Mr Wick.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)
(SPOILERS) At one point during John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, our eponymous hero announces he needs “Guns, lots of guns” in a knowing nod to Keanu Reeves’ other non-Bill & Ted franchise. It’s a cute moment, but it also points to the manner in which the picture, enormous fun as it undoubtedly is, is a slight step down for a franchise previously determined to outdo itself, giving way instead to something more self-conscious, less urgent and slightly fractured.

She worshipped that pig. And now she's become him.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)
(SPOILERS) Choosing to make The Girl in the Spider’s Web following the failure of the David Fincher film – well, not a failure per se, but like Blade Runner 2049, it simply cost far too much to justify its inevitably limited returns – was a very bizarre decision on MGM’s part. A decision to reboot, with a different cast, having no frame of reference for the rest of the trilogy unless you checked out the Swedish movies (or read the books, but who does that?); someone actually thought this would possibly do well? Evidently the same execs churning out desperately flailing remakes based on their back catalogue of IPs (Ben-Hur, The Magnificent Seven, Death Wish, Tomb Raider); occasionally there’s creative flair amid the dross (Creed, A Star is Born), but otherwise, it’s the most transparently creatively bankrupt studio there is.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

I mean, I think anybody who looked at Fred, looked at somebody that they couldn't compare with anybody else.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) 
(SPOILERS) I did, of course, know who Fred Rogers was, despite being British. Or rather, I knew his sublimely docile greeting song. How? The ‘Burbs, naturally. I was surprised, given the seeming unanimous praise it was receiving (and the boffo doco box office) that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? didn’t garner a Best Documentary Oscar nod, but now I think I can understand why. It’s as immensely likeable as Mr Rogers himself, yet it doesn’t feel very substantial.

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

I think, I ruminate, I plan.

The Avengers 6.5: Get-A-Way
Another very SF story, and another that recalls earlier stories, in this case 5.5: The See-Through Man, in which Steed states baldly “I don’t believe in invisible men”. He was right in that case, but he’d have to eat his bowler here. Or half of it, anyway. The intrigue of Get-A-Way derives from the question of how it is that Eastern Bloc spies have escaped incarceration, since it isn’t immediately announced that a “magic potion” is responsible. And if that reveal isn’t terribly convincing, Peter Bowles makes the most of his latest guest spot as Steed’s self-appointed nemesis Ezdorf.