Sorry to Bother You

 

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A strikingly unusual work which loses its way to a fatal degree.


Sorry to Bother You

Jermaine Fowler

 

The trailer for this debut feature by Boots Riley is distinctly promising - indeed it suggests that the film will be a very entertaining comedy and one that might even live up to the hype that surrounds it. Riley took years over the writing, struggled to get it into production and finally emerged as its director too. Last month Sorry to Bother You was featured on the front cover of Britain's most prestigious film magazine, Sight & Sound; it was also the subject of a five-page article inside which extolled it as a fabulous comedy.

 

Thus it was that with high hopes I approached the film and relished its opening scene in which a young black man, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), tells lies at a job interview when he seeks a post in telemarketing: his lies are detected, but he gets the post because lying is looked on as displaying initiative. Once on the job he soon learns that the key to getting sales over the telephone is to adopt a confident voice, one that makes him sound like a white man. This notion - not without a distant echo of the real-life situation recently depicted in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman in which a black cop found himself mistaken for white when on the telephone - offers a neat premise for a satirical work about the steps necessary if a black man is to rise to the top in a capitalist society.  It helps too that in his first star role Stanfield has such a strong presence. 

 

It's relatively early in the proceedings when Cassius's girl, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), questions her willingness to remain with a partner who, given the opportunity, seeks advancement. That's because he does so at the cost of turning his back on the efforts of the more lowly workers of whom he'd been one as they seek support in protesting inadequate pay. That fits well enough into the theme that the film wants to develop, but it feels a bit of a cliché when it leads to romantic rivalry once a leading protestor (Steven Yeur) shows an interest in Detroit. But, as against that and far more significantly, it's pleasingly unorthodox for a comedy to function on some level as a comment on social injustice (for an earlier example it is the Preston Sturges classic of 1941, Sullivan's Travels, that comes to mind). One notes too that this well played film by featuring a central character who pursues advancement in his work but lives to be disillusioned by the price he has to pay for it carries echoes of another classic, Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960).

 

Although a bit uneven, the first half of Sorry to Bother You is certainly not short of appeal but then, through a story development that alters the whole character of the piece, it becomes as fanciful as any work by Michel Gondry - but not in a good way. Because a plot twist is involved here it beholds critics not to reveal what happens at this point but, having discussed this film with colleagues, I know that I am not the only one who feels that this work goes off the rails to such an extent that one is driven to say that from then on it is plain bonkers. One cannot even tell if the second half is meant to terrify or to offer comedy with a black streak, but it emerges as achieving neither - instead it merely seems silly. To bring to mind Sullivan's Travels and The Apartment is fine, but, predictably, elements reminiscent of those in an even earlier classic film, 1932's Island of Lost Souls, do not fit in at all and they come to dominate. By the close, regardless of the good parts, one feels that this film has wasted your time and you are sorry to have been bothered.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Omari Hardwick, Jermaine Fowler, Steven Yeur, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, Kate Berlant, Michael X. Simmons, Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker and the voices of David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Lily James and Rosario Dawson.

 

Dir Boots Riley, Pro Nina Yang Bongiovi, Kelly Williams, Jonathan Duffy, Charles D. King, George Rush and Forest Whitaker, Screenplay Boots Riley, Ph Doug Emmett, Pro Des Jason Kisvarday, Ed Terel Gibson, Music The Coup, Merrill Garbus, Boots Riley and Tune-Yards, Costumes Deirdra Elizabeth Govan.

 

Cinereach/Forest Whitaker's Significant Productions/MACRO/MNM Creative/The Space Program-Universal Pictures.
111 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 7 December 2018. Cert. 15.