' ' Cinema Romantico: Sorry to Bother You

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Sorry to Bother You

The cult classic white collar comedy “Office Space” made great hay from observational humor, sending up inane bureaucracy and cubicle farms with great, ah, flair. And yet, just when the film seemed to ready to kick into overdrive with its protagonist earning a promotion simply by checking out, the film declined using this inadvertent career advancement to further expose corporate culture by opting for a revenge subplot instead, running out of steam and finding convenient means to get its character off the hook. “Sorry to Bother You” is different from “Office Space”, in tone and overriding intent, yet the former sort of picks up where the latter was set to explode, promoting its principal character and then taking him straight to the top. Its politics are never subtle, resembling the enormous protest earrings sported throughout the film by activist/artist Detroit (Tessa Thompson), not simply taking comical potshots but furiously upending the whole system.

“Sorry to Bother You” is the directorial debut of Boots Riley, who also the wrote the screenplay, and who comes from the world of music, a rapper and producer, which is no accident because this film feels as layered as an old Bomb Squad produced Public Enemy track. Indeed, Riley finished the screenplay in 2012 but was unable to go forward with production until 2017, and the finished product suggests someone tinkering with details over time, a la Steve Martin and “L.A. Story”, which “Sorry to Bother You” evokes in its endless well of creativity. Not for nothing are we introduced to Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) in an intimate moment in bed with Detroit, his girlfriend, when the door suddenly flies open revealing the fact they are living in a garage, connected to the home of Cassius’s Uncle (Terry Crews). It’s the movie in capsule, every scene, every setting, every moment thought through, with Riley going so far as to even create a secondary world on television, like a hit TV show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me in which people stand in front of the camera and, well, willingly get the shit kicked out of them, an apt metaphor for, say, 46.1% of the populace.

Unemployed and hard up for cash, Cassius takes a telemarketing gig, in part by lying during his interview, which apparently demonstrates initiative, epitomizing the worldview of “Sorry to Bother You”, or perhaps just our world in general. In peddling encyclopedias by phone, Riley ingeniously literalizes the profession’s brand of privacy invasion. And though Riley lingers over the eternal business management seminar twaddle of teamwork while also injecting new millennium nonsense like social currency, it is not the low (no) wage lifestyle that interests him so much as what it is propping up. Cassius becomes a dynamite salesman by, on the advice of a co-worker (Danny Glover), using his “white voice” on the phone, a hysterical, revealing device in which David Cross’s voice tags in for Stanfield’s, taking that line from “Night School” about not hearing color and then twisting it. Riley takes questions of black identity, and others too, to the next level as Cassius is whisked up a floor by gold elevator and making bank, and becoming unplugged, so to speak, from the matrix where he sees how modern slave labor gets bought and sold.

This idea of selling slave labor is connected to Cassius’s former colleagues, spurred on by Squeeze (Steven Yeun), attempting to unionize, as well as Detroit’s own activism, both through her art and an activist group called Left Eye (which may or may not be culled from the late rapper Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, though I’d like to think it is, an ode, say, to her declaring “realize the realism of reality treats us both the same”). Like the scene of the garage door flipping up to re-arrange your sightlines, Riley just keeps upping the stakes by flipping the script. It’s not that it’s too much, per se, but that Riley almost loses control, the pacing turning off-kilter, particularly in the conclusion which feels a bit too all of a sudden rather than a complete gathering of all its themes, while the veracity of interpersonal relationships is never quite given enough room to breathe.

Even if the speedy twists and turns threaten sometimes to send “Sorry to Bother You” careening out of control, Stanfield’s performance remains on point, taking his pained expression from “Get Out” as an emotional cue, never failing to evince emotional confusion amidst emergent absurdity. That absurdity, without spoiling it, essentially depicts and damns a world where the one percent has eliminated the middle class, leaving a mass of desperate plebes. But in Cassius’s changing fortunes, he occupies the space in-between, seeing where those worlds intersect, and becoming an agent not so much for change as revolution. And that’s where Riley brazenly leaves it, satirically grinding Both Sides-ism to dust, suggesting the only alternative left isn’t to make nice but kick down doors.

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