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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, July 20, 2018

‘Sorry to Bother You’ is quirky but don’t hang up on it




“Sorry to Bother You” is a satirical comedy packed with energy and creativity. It’s also bursting with ideas.

It’s as though first-time writer and director Boots Riley, a rapper by trade, was worried this was going to be his one shot at making a movie, so he threw in every thought that was ping-ponging around in his wildly active brain.

While “Sorry to Bother You” doesn’t collapse under the weight of all these ideas, it comes close. Fortunately, there are enough entertaining bits to keep viewers engaged.

Riley begins with a good idea: satirizing telemarketing. The movie opens in an alternate version of present-day Oakland, where a company, WorryFree, is offering people food, shelter and employment in exchange for a lifetime contract.

A radical group called The Left Eye opposes what amounts to legalized slavery and begins to deface WorryFree’s ads.

Enter Cassius “Cash” Green, a young African-American man who lives in a ramshackle garage with what must be his very understanding girlfriend. (I mean, Cash has looks and charm, but not an abundance of them, so she must see something in him I didn’t.)

Instead of signing himself over to WorryFree, Cash gets a job as a telemarketer. He has trouble at first connecting with the people he calls, but once a co-worker played by Danny “Lethal Weapon” Glover teaches him how to use his white voice, his career takes off.

The early portion of “Sorry to Bother You” is filled with humor that hits the mark. You can feel Riley warming up his writing muscles in an exchange where Cash expresses outrage at his landlord’s greedy ways, only to be reminded that his landlord is his uncle.

Also, Riley shows his creativity as a director when Cash literally drops in on the people he’s calling as they’re living their lives.

(Cash’s desk drops through the floor of his office and into their homes, where he finds them engaged in any number of activities. This might be a good place to mention that “Sorry to Bother You” is rated R.)

Just as Cash is promoted to power caller – an upgrade that places him on a swank elevator bound for the upper floors – a coworker named Squeeze (Steven Yeun of “Walking Dead” fame) begins lobbying for raises.

And suddenly, it seems like “Sorry to Bother You” is about selling out to the corporate juggernaut.

Before “Sorry to Bother You” is over, Riley dips his pen into the ink well of so many ideas, I lost count. One minute, he’s sending up the mass media, and in the next, he’s exploring the ways in which white people continue to subjugate African-Americans.

At times, there’s so much going on, it’s as though “Sorry to Bother You” was conceived as a series of comedy sketches that were then stitched together into a feature film.

Taken alone, many of Riley’s ideas are solid and, like all good satire, cut right to the heart of a matter with razor sharp wit. Chill bumps covered my skin as I watched a scene in which a gathering of white people demand that a reluctant Cash rap for their pleasure. “Rap! Rap! Rap!” they chant as Cash insists he can’t.

His ultimate response is a bit of genius from Riley and unprintable in a newspaper. But then Riley moves on to his next idea and the moment is gone.

If I could change one thing about “Sorry to Bother You,” it would be its screenplay. If Riley had written a leaner script and given fewer ideas room to grow, he would have made a more cohesive movie.

I would also soften Riley’s tendency to explain what his ideas mean. “Sorry to Bother You” works best when Riley is letting his themes play out naturally. But the movie hits a few awkward notes when Riley stops to enlighten viewers, as he does in a scene in which a crowd stares at a sculpture of a corporate big wig in a compromising position with a horse.

“It’s about the dehumanization of the common worker,” a man in the crowd says clumsily. (I’m paraphrasing.) Thanks, but I’d rather figure these things out for myself.

I wouldn’t change a thing about Lakeith Stanfield’s performance as Cash, though. Like Riley, Stanfield is a rapper, but in “Sorry to Bother You,” he shows he has fine instincts as an actor, as well.

He cleverly plays Cash slightly hunched over, as if he’s unsure of himself and the people with whom he’s dealing. Throughout the movie, his performance remains low-key, which made me think that once Cash stepped into the river, he was merely carried along by its current without giving much thought to what he was doing.

Before its conclusion, “Sorry to Bother You” goes from suggesting the existence of darker elements in society to showing them, albeit in a surreal way. Riley slowly builds to this point, so it’s not a shock, although I will say the audience, which had been in fits of laughter, remained silent once the film takes this dark turn.

Riley makes some rookie mistakes with “Sorry to Bother You,” but he brings enough energy, creativity, humor and intelligence to the table that the film is worth seeing.

There’s no need to rush to a theater, though, as technical issues pop up from time to time. The actor’s lip-syncing with their white man voice is a little off, and the dialogue is occasionally drowned out by other elements. Waiting until “Sorry to Bother You” hits the streaming and VOD channels will do fine.

The film isn’t for everyone, though. The bizarre third act will put off some viewers, although I thought it was a natural evolution of the movie’s best ideas. However, Riley’s knack for sugarcoating his harsher jabs at society with humor should keep most people from spitting out the pill.

Issues aside, “Sorry to Bother You” shows that Riley has the potential to be a fresh, original voice in cinema. He just needs to pluck fewer ideas from his wildly active brain when he sits down to write.