Sorry to Bother You – 2018

Written and Directed by Boots Riley
Starring LaKeith Stanfield, David Cross (voice), Tessa Thompson, Lily James (voice), Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Patton Oswalt (voice), Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, Danny Glover

In the grand scheme of things, watching any movie with LaKeith Stanfield is not a waste of time. His skill at expressing emotions economically is unmatched. He often gives the appearance of an intellectual in bloom. Here is no exception.

The challenge with Sorry To Bother You is not the acting. There are plenty of good actors beyond Stanfield, and each of them execute their roles expertly.The movement from one plot machination to the next is relayed with efficiency so we at least know what we’re supposed to feel from one scene to the next.

The story involves Cassius (Cash) Green and his search for a good job. He heads into the basement offices of RegalView armed with false references and awards he made up himself. The boss thinks that shows initiative and gives him a shot. Stick to the script, he says at the end of their meeting. Like a mantra. Like maybe there will be a payoff.

During his first day there, he learns from Langston (Glover) that he will have more success if he speaks in his “white” voice. Using this voice (dubbed by Cross), he quickly hits it big. Strangely, this is not nearly as successful for Langston. No reason is given.

Before he has a chance to get comfortable, he meets up with a professional SJW rabble rouser (Yeung) who goes from job to job determining what’s fair then creating unions out of whole cloth. He recruits Cash, his girlfriend (Thompson) and others.

In the midst of the events of the film we see and hear commercials for WorryFree, an indentured servitude company that obliges folks to a life of working for room and board. Sounds horrible. The director, an acknowledged communist, impresses upon us that this is bad. I would just call it late stage communism.

The good kind of communism is the unions though. And while the workers decide to strike, Cash is lured across the picket lines to become a Power Caller. Thereby we see the conundrum: Cash is made to take advantage of people, including the poor WorryFree folk, to his and the company’s profit.

Somewhere in here, there are jokes. Some of them work: like when Cash is hit in the head. Others, not so much.

Most of the situations are absurd. Absurdist comedy is great for making points. Mel Brooks made a career out of it. Riley is too raw of a creator at this point to just go with the absurd. Instead, we are subject to several scenes where Cash, aka the viewer, are subjected to lessons in wokeness by people with not nearly as much to lose as he and his family.The result is hollow lesson learning. To his credit, Riley points out through Cash the reality of these pressures.

Then, in a New York minute, we see the situation change to where Cash has no choice but to object. These events bring a new element into the film that is more sci-fi bordering on horror. The switching of styles just feels awkward and the whole pace of the last act is a mess.

This is a story that could have worked, if the script were tightened up a bit and we were allowed to marinate in either comedy, drama or horror. Since Riley doesn’t really commit to any one type of story, the viewer’s brain feels like Cash’s confused countenance by the end of the film.

Riley and company might create a compelling version of his story a few films from now. For now it just feels like something we’re supposed to learn, which is rarely funny.

(** out of *****)

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