Sorry To Bother You - Review
This is America
Boots Riley's new film Sorry to Bother You is an exercise in several different things: One is an incredibly well developed script specializing in black exploitation and satire a la Kurt Vonnegut, another is a bold directorial debut from a man eager to reshape cinema, and yet another is an absurdist art film meant for a very specific audience of woke hipsters dying to overthrow the status quo. All this results in a jumbled, brilliant film that could have used a recut, as well as a more convincing flow from the first half to the second.
If there is praise for the acting in Sorry to Bother You, Lakeith Stanfield is first up. His minor yet important role in last year's Get Out set the stage perfectly for his starring role in STBY, where he plays Cassius Green (aka Cash Green), a down on his luck young adult looking for a way to make some money. His girlfriend and earring connoisseur, as played by Tessa Thompson, is a perfect reflection of Cassius's desire to support the counterculture. Thompson is grounded but doesn't hold any punches when it comes to her bizarre visual art. As Cassius's story progresses and he is drawn further down the rabbit hole of greed, his changes are reflected in her. They are the acting backbone of the film, and their relationship is believable and complicated. Stanfield is the clear standout in a film full of great supporting actors like Terry Crews, Danny Glover, Armie Hammer, and Steven Yeun, who all give over the top, mesmerizing performances that often outshine the plot of the film.
The first half of STBY is a near perfect satire of racial manipulation in the United States at this point in time, calling to mind the humorous yet charged visuals of Childish Gambino's "This is America" video. Cash moves through the ranks of the telemarketing service he works for using a "white voice", where his is replaced by the voice of David Cross (Arrested Development). This allows him to relate more to those he calls, presenting an idealized version of a person the customer wishes they could be. Plenty of visual and written gags are present in the first half as well, giving the film a noticeably light tone despite it's colorful subject matter.
In the second half, things take a turn.
As soon as Cassius enters the exclusive party for Armie Hammer's ridiculous Steve Lift, the film adopts a symbolic tone. The visual game is increased significantly, one notable example being a room full of white people chanting at Cassius to rap. The party serves as an entry point to what is the film's major statement, the turning of regular laborers into horse people capable of heavier lifting and more efficient work. The idea is clever, and involves a smart use of body horror that I was not expecting, but it takes too long to pay off. For over an hour, the threat of this diabolical plan to turn people into horses is dangled over our heads, and then in the final act, completely dropped, seemingly resolved. While the last shots of the film do bring it back in a surprising way, the concept is simply over-explained. After a certain point, the film decides that the visual of horse people is funnier than the symbol they represent, and chooses to make light of them for a gag. This isn't the worst choice that could have been made, but it does leave the narrative structure of the film fractured.
Sorry to Bother You is a bold, entertaining first effort that is at its best when it sticks to the strength of its cast. Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson are anchors to an otherwise flailing film that attempts to turn every problem black people face in America into a symbol. The first half is sublime, a daft mix of humor, satire, and excellent directing, and while the second half leads the film into much spottier territory, Sorry To Bother You could never be described as un-interesting.