‘Sorry to Bother You’ is weird, cool, but not quite wonderful

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Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield in ‘Sorry to Bother You.’ — film still

There’s something extraordinary about Sorry to Bother You, now showing at FilmScene. Maybe it’s rookie writer-director Boots Riley’s unique take on science fiction. Maybe it’s the timely discussion of the evils of capitalism and importance of labor unions. Maybe it’s the practical special effects, hearkening back to early sci-fi with a contemporary, satirical sheen. Maybe it’s Lakeith Stanfield’s stellar performance, or Tessa Thompson’s badass hair, make-up and wardrobe.

Walking out of a screening, I could think only one thing of the film: it’s extraordinarily weird. I love weird: give me messy, campy, off-color stories any day. But Sorry to Bother You‘s particular brand of weirdness managed to be both fun and a little disappointing.

The story juggles absurdity and utter normalcy throughout. This is demonstrated in the film’s basic premise: Sorry to Bother You follows an unemployed, largely unremarkable guy named Cassius Green (Stanfield), known as Cash, who manages to secure a job at a telemarketing company selling encyclopedia sets. He starts making sales when he, a black man, utilizes his “white voice” — not just the kind of Caucasian dialect Ron Stallworth affects to woo the Ku Klux Klan over the phone in Spike Lee’s recent BlacKkKlansman, but literally the dorky, confident voice of David Cross.

As his vocal talents bring him closer to joining the ranks of the company’s well-paid, well-respected and enigmatic “power callers,” Cash’s fellow low-level employees — including his fiancée Detroit (Thompson), also an artist — plan a strike against the company for higher wages. Should Cash support his friends and social justice, or lean into his own ambitions — not just for financial security, but for a lasting contribution to society?

The backdrop to this story is an alternate present where unemployment, social stratification and general dissatisfaction are high. A reality show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me has the highest ratings on television. A company called WorryFree offers Americans a different lifestyle: work in their factories, move your family into a prison-like cell with prison-like food, and never worry about the stress of existing independently again. Despite facing a wave of controversy and protests, WorryFree’s CEO (Armie Hammer), an extreme Elon Musk-type, is planning to expand the business model to uncharted territory.

Sorry to Bother You invites comparisons to Atlanta, Get Out and Black Mirror’s “Fifteen Million Merits” episode, and not just because two of the three also star Lakeith Stanfield. But for me, Riley didn’t manage to capture the dark humor, sharp commentary and emotional highs and lows of those three.

It’s a problem I often find with absurdism. When there’s more style than story, I tend not to fully engage with — or, frankly, care about — the world or its characters. The exception is when absurdists have a very distinct, original, satirical sensibility. But Kurt Vonnegut or Douglas Adams, Boots Riley is not.

Still, plenty of voices have called genius on Sorry to Bother You. I might need another viewing to reach that conclusion, or a better understanding of the film’s influences. I do know it was a feast for the eyes (and not just because I’m in love with Tessa Thompson and Armie Hammer), a messy, color-soaked sci-fi landscape aesthetically falling somewhere in between the Blade Runner films and Thor: Ragnarok.

It’s certainly not my favorite film of the year, but it’s worth seeing if only to know what all the buzz is about. Sometimes you gotta give into the crazy.

Look for showtimes for Sorry to Bother You at the FilmScene website.

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