Hard R! Like, the trailer is pretty R rated (as I unfortunately discovered after trying to show someone said trailer to explain what the movie was about). It's got swearing, nudity (of both the regular and science fiction related kind), violence, drugs, racism, weird art (which I'm aware isn't a thing, but it is meant to be uncomfortable), slavery, and all kinds of horrible things going on. But when I tell you all this stuff is in the movie and that the movie should still be seen, take that as a glowing pitch for this movie. It is very R and very important. R.
DIRECTOR: Boots Riley
I'm actually ashamed that I don't know who Boots Riley is. Yup. I keep up on pop culture as best as I can. But I do suck at one element of pop culture: music. I just listen to podcasts all the time, so when other people react to "Boots Riley", I just think it's a cool name. Yup. But Boots Riley made one of the movies of my year. I hate throwing a movie I just watched onto the coveted Best of 2018 list, but Sorry to Bother You is the kind of movie I wait for. It does so much on so many levels for me that I can't help but get a little snobby about it. The worst part is that I really wanted to see it for a while, but only caught it because it was on Hulu. At least I can say that I watched a movie on Hulu.
I'm not sure what direction I want to take this analysis. When I write for publication, I really think out what I should focus on. But there's a lot here and one makes me look overly-pious while the other makes me look like a film snob. I'm spoiling the ending of this review because I am the magician who reveals his secrets, but here's my logic. I'm going to talk about the aesthetics and tone of this movie first and then spiral into the central message of the film. The central message is going to be last as a way to stress that it is the most important part. Trick revealed. Let's move on. Boots Riley, unabashedly and lovingly, make the Michel Gondry movie that Michel Gondry could never really make. I paused the movie at one point and typed into Google, "sorry to bother you michel gondry" and read all about it. There's a little Michel Gondry joke in the movie and I had to be sure that I was seeing what I was seeing. Boots Riley apparently is a fan of Michel Gondry and made a movie that Michel Gondry would make. Is part of me disappointed that Riley does this? It should really bother me, but it doesn't. Riley is making a film for the first time. The movie looks and feels like Gondry's work. It has this indie, DIY feel to the whole thing that is the cinematic version of a really great garage rock band. I guess the protagonist living in a garage thing is appropriate because that is the vibe that is coming off this film and it is coming off the film hard. For this story, the Michel Gondry aesthetic really works. All this talk shouldn't be a way to depreciate what Boots Riley achieved on his own. Rather, this is a kind of storytelling that we really don't get too much of. I mean, I don't get mad at Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry at the same time for having a lot of the same tricks, do I? Then I can hold anything against Boots Riley. Riley made a really weird real world. The allegory is intense, and because the movie has a lot to say, this world needs to be a little bit intense as well. The balance that Riley is shooting for is really there. The movie manages to hook in audiences by creating this world where so much oddity is taking place that Cash's life gets so much attention. If you were looking at your phone during this movie at any point, shame on you because every shot is crafted beautifully. The visuals, the acting, and the soundtrack are great. The casting is absolutely phenomenal. Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius is inspired. He gets the balance of living between two worlds phenomenally and he really commands attention. As always, Tessa Thompson is crushing it. Yeah, she deserves to be in everything because she gets it. Detroit is amazing and such a phenomenal control to the shifting Cassius. She's great. But then just going down the line and checking all the boxes for great performances. I do have to say that I'm still very skeptical about Armie Hammer. I'm one of the five people who apparently hated Call Me by Your Name, so I can't watch him in stuff now. But the movie is otherwise pretty great.
But this is a message movie. Stop clenching up. You should be better than this. Film is art. Art should challenge us and, boy, Sorry to Bother You wants you to be uncomfortable. I want to go into SPOILERS because I know that people were a little put off by the big revelation at the end. The movie focuses on selling out. Selling out is a typical theme in film and we've seen it so many times before. But when I watch a "selling out" movie, the stakes are always so low. Honestly, mostly selling out comes at the expense of friendship. That's completely reasonable when you are a Mighty Duck or something like that, but Sorry to Bother You finds the evil of selling out. Cassius is sympathetic because almost no one has fought for him. He pays for gas with 40 cents. He lives in a garage and he can't even make the most marginal rent payments. The economic stakes have to be pretty high when Cassius feels the need to lie on his resume to get a telemarketing job. His big salvation is said telemarketing job. His life kind of sucks and then he finds out that he has an insane talent. He has the perfect white person voice. This white person voice can sell anything to anyone and that's his life now. But Cassius lives in this world where slavery is publicized. I wanted to say that Cassius lived in a world where slavery existed, but clearly Boots Riley is implying that slavery does exist without being called slavery. This is a movie where people die or are enslaved because people sell out. For people who hated this movie, I can see where you might have a concern. Life doesn't play out so intensely as it does in Sorry to Bother You. But Boots Riley created something that is as clear as it can be. He needed everyone to get the message and that means taking the subtlety out of things. Explaining institutionalized slavery in a two hour film subtlely might be a Herculean task that people wouldn't understand. Instead, Sorry to Bother You goes for the jugular. It calls a spade a spade and it works for the film.
Yeah, the horse stuff is weird and uncomfortable. The nudity I was talking about earlier? It's real gross here. This is the stuff that put people off and I can't really blame them. As weird as the movie is before that part, the horse stuff goes to a whole new level. The thing is, Riley is making this film that is about constant escalation. It's hard to cap slavery and the entire movie stresses the evils of slavery from the first moment. To add eugenics, it does smack Cassius in the face. He had a number that he was fine with. He was making as much money as he wanted. But Cassius, as our protagonist that needed to have a change of character. There needed to be something that would be considered too far. Also, and I am probably really stepping into it with this one, is the message of "how far would a dominant culture go?" A lot of the movie focuses on slavery being okay as long as it isn't called slavery. WorryFree, marketed the right way, doesn't sound so bad. The second it is called slavery, that's when it becomes taboo. Cassius became okay with that social evil because that's what people do. People really do becoming okay with social evils as long as it seems not that bad. The horse thing is the most insane thing that could have been put on that screen and that's why it is in the movie. It is abhorrent and secret. That's what makes it something that Cassius can't handle, its secret nature. He discovered something that he didn't want to see and that's what made it hard to accept. It didn't hurt that he was used for his race once again, by having him rap when he didn't know how. It's a lot to take in and I think that's Boots Riley's point. He needed to have a strong break and the horse thing was it.
The one thing that I kept getting a little turned around on is the almost intentionally weak dubbing. David Cross and Patton Oswalt are really recognizable voices. I liked that because I'm a fan of both comedians. The voices are supposed to be jarring because it is that kind of movie. I watched BlacKkKlansman as well this weekend, also involving doing the "white voice" and Sorry to Bother You is the more jarring of the two. It is very clear that everyone who is doing the white voice is being dubbed, and that's important. But I just don't know why it isn't tight. I watch Drunk History and the dubbing is spot on. I know it can be done and done well. I feel like Riley made a choice when the dubbing didn't match the voices very well. It reminded me of the scene from Wayne's World when Garth didn't know the lyrics to "Bohemian Rhapsody". Regardless, this is my one thing that I'm not quite sure about in the film. The rest of the film is a scathing satire of race culture and economics in America. It's really intense and a movie that should not be watched passively. It hit a sweet spot for me in terms of tone and message, but it might not be for everyone. But because it's not for everyone, it should be. (I'm being cryptic, I know.) This movie is important and the fact that it is well made only is more important. I absolutely loved it and, remember, it can be watched on Hulu right now.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.