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 was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.