Sorry to Bother You

(Riley, 2018)


The directorial debut from prolific musician Boots Riley is an off-the-walls, absurdist comedy about Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield), a black telemarker who uses his “white voice” to get ahead in the industry. With an all-star supporting cast (including Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun and Armie Hammer) and Riley’s unique directorial sensibility, Sorry to Bother You should be a grand slam. However, trouble for the film comes in the form of cohesion. To put it bluntly, there is none.

About halfway into the film, Riley’s tenure as a musician becomes apparent. The film’s soundtrack, which features contributions from Riley’s group The Coup, tUnE-yArDs and Lakeith Stanfield himself, is sprawling, but Riley’s directorial style is also quite musical, focusing on characters (notes) and themes (melodies) more than any overarching storyline. If you had to compare the film to a piece of music, it would probably be a concept album, albeit a loose one. There is growth and change, but only as it serves the varied themes. In fact, I would argue that the “film” would be altogether more successful if it were packaged as a collection of shorts following the same characters. Unfortunately for Riley, this album-like structure, which features disparate scenes (songs) bumping and grinding against each other, is the film’s biggest weakness. It tanks the film’s momentum every time it starts to get going and it leaves the script feeling stale.

However, the script’s most egregious sin is not its pacing, but in one of its characters. Tessa Thompson’s quirky and unapologetic heroine Detroit is a true low point for the film. It’s never a good thing if you’re wondering whether a character is supposed to be annoying or not. Detroit is an artist and freedom fighter whose scenes primarily focus on her passionate dissents and satirical performance art. With dialogue that is steeped in vicious melodrama, her character comes across as whiny, even when her views are righteous. What is perhaps most concerning about Detroit is that she is never granted the opportunity to exist in the context of another female character. She is meant to be the film’s voice of feminism, but the fact that she only appears in service of (or in opposition to) the film’s male characters undercuts her voice even further. At one point, a group of male characters go so far as complain to Cassius when they find out Detroit is going to hanging out with them. Tessa Thompson’s talent and charisma are undeniable, so it’s a shame she didn’t get more to do.

Despite my criticisms, Sorry to Bother You has a number of strengths. Boots Riley’s directing style— loud, fast and wholly unique— is one of them. He is likely to be a fixture of the indie film scene for at least the next couple of years, which is a good thing for everybody. Maybe his freewheeling approach and generous color palette will inspire other filmmakers to venture outside of their comfort zone. And that’s another thing about Sorry to Bother You— it is not comfortable. The performances are either eerily wooden (Stanfield) or completely melodramatic (Tessa Thompson), the soundscape is either loud and layered or completely bare. Sorry to Bother You exists in a world of cinematic absolutes. It doesn’t always work, but it does save the film from being uniform or static. The less effective scenes pass by like a bad song on the radio, but the good ones do the same, even when you want them to linger just a minute longer. For better or for worse, every moment of Sorry to Bother You is a fleeting one, as if Riley was just too excited to sit still, or maybe just didn’t feel like it.

At the end of the day, Sorry to Bother You winds up feeling more like an experimental SNL episode than a narrative feature. It is a welcome dose of weird with many memorable moments throughout, but as a single entity, the film lacks the necessary cohesion that would elevate it from good to great. ★★★½

David Merkle