Monday, July 16, 2018

I'll never be your beast of burden


Sorry exists in a world where satire has been dead for years, and it wants to revive it anyway.  It succeeds just about as well as I guess any movie possibly could.

Written and directed by Boots Riley
With Lakeith Stanfield/David Cross (Cassius Green), Tessa Thompson (Detroit), Jermaine Fowler (Salvador), Steven Yuen (Squeeze), Danny Glover (Langston), Omari Hardwick/Patton Oswalt (Mr. ____), and Armie Hammer (Steve Lift)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Whatever else it is, Sorry To Bother You is energetic as fuck.  This sounds like a nice way of saying it's a mess—or at least looks like a mess, on paper—though it probably ought to be extravagantly clear to anybody who sees it that it's a "mess" 100% on purpose, as it's been made to be a container for a whole chain of almost stream-of-consciousness ideas which writer-director Boots Riley (famous for other reasons, but likely to soon be most famous for this) wants to communicate about the world in general, and about America in particular, and it only uses the first magical-realist high-concept it introduces as a vehicle to get to even stranger places.  The upshot is that a Sorry To Bother You that was less of a mess would also be way less exciting—and no doubt a lot less fun to watch.

That aforementioned magical-realist high-concept is what the movie the trailers have been selling is "about," though in truth it turns out that the movie the trailers have been selling is really just one piece of the movie Riley made—it's probably not even the most important piece, at that—but it does make for a solid foundation from which to proceed.  And so, in Oakland, we find our hero, young Cassius "Cash" Green (yes, this is a thing the movie does, in case the title did not clue you in).  Cassius is currently unemployed and four months behind on the rent he pays his uncle for the right to live in his garage.  To Cassius's credit, this has not kept him from making time with aspiring artist/part-time sign-twirler Detroit, though the malfunctioning garage door that opens right out onto the street has put something of a cramp in his style, and, all in all, Cassius would prefer a more dignified life.  He finally finds his chance for a modicum of cubicle-based economic fulfillment at RegalView, but only through doing the worst job in the developed world, and the most implausible job in any world: a commission-based gig cold-calling random people and trying (usually failing) to convince them to buy encyclopedias.  He is not successful at this task whatsoever until he takes the advice of his elder coworker: since Cassius is black, and you can kind of tell over the phone (you can only kind of tell with Lakeith Stanfield's particular American accent, which, in fact, is a textual joke in the film), he should not do that; instead, he should use his "white voice."  His "white voice," it turns out, is exceptional, and thus do all the doors in his universe open for him.

This only gets us to the beginning of where Riley needs us to go, though, which is to take Cassius on a magic carpet ride to the very doorstep of the highest echelons of power, where we learn things are even more terrible than all the little world-building details (e.g., the state of alternate-universe American popular culture, represented by the most popular TV show on Earth, I Got the $#!* Kicked Out of Me!; or the new solution for unemployment, the WorryFree lifestyle, which is advertised to people as literal-actual slavery) that Riley's been throwing at us have led us to believe.

The "white voice" is probably the most abiding reminder that this movie has an aggressively anti-realist bent, inasmuch as it's a not-even-especially-seamless overdub of Stanfield by David Cross.  But it's not the first hint, and surely not the last, that Sorry is  one explosively stylized thing.  That's apparent in just about every minute: the way it (literally) drops Cassius right into the scene as he accosts people on the phone; the wildly overdecorated sets; the extraordinary manner in which Riley composes nonsensical background action as an active, often-even-funnier distraction while his leads talk, which would put him automatically in the upper ranks of modern comedy directors even if he did literally nothing else cool; the plunging cutting style employed by Terel Gibson that tends to truncate shots and scenes in a noticeably counterintuitive way, which I suppose you could chalk up to Riley's first-time direction, if you didn't like it, or, if you did (and I did), to an overweening intent to keep the pace incredibly frantic and every event feeling spontaneous, to the point that the whole film feels like it takes place over something like three days, even when the movie explicitly points out it's several months.  Eventually, even after wading neck-deep through the avowed cartoonishness of its live-action world, we even get an actual cartoon out of Sorry, a little corporate promotional number in stop-motion-animated felt—involving cavepeople, hairy nipples, and hyperviolent exposition—that might be the comedic and formal highlight of the film all at once, though it's got a lot of stiff competition.  Not to mention, this movie has the best title font of 2018.  Hands down.

Altogether, it's an astonishing piece of mood and world-creation, off-center and really, really weird, in ways that'll make you think of Gilliam, or an especially manic (but uncharacteristically whimsical) Cronenberg, or all the best parts from Lumet's Network, i.e. the parts you remember, except now they're the whole movie.  Yet I don't know if it's fair to Riley to peg his movie to its "canonical" influences, because that would make it sound like pastiche.  It's obviously more personal than that in its style and content.

Besides, Riley's film is also very definitely a slapstick comedy, and a very funny one, moreso than most of the arty surrealists manage—so you know what Sorry's honed wackiness actually reminds me of the most in tone? A ZAZ movie, or, better yet, Savage Steve Holland's Better Off DeadSorry is, of course, more efficient than that movie, and even its seeming tangents are always more substantively allegorical—but I think I'm giving the film a compliment when I say that, considering I love Better Off Dead, and in its own passionately thrown-together quality, Sorry winds up being one of the most successful attempts to make an 80s movie in a decade lousy with attempts to make neo-80s movies simply by stealing particular aesthetics.  Maybe this is even the right and natural result of Riley making his first movie now, since despite Sorry being a screenwriting and directorial debut, at 47, Riley must technically qualify as An Old.  (I also wonder if the script's been around for a little while: it's a good thing by my lights, one that helps it feel a lot more timeless despite it being so perpetually-timely, but Sorry doesn't make the slightest reference to our immediate political situation.)  Anyway, if slapstick absurdism is Riley's niche, then he's a more-than-welcome addition to the landscape, because besides any funny, stylistically-shocking comedy being refreshing in and of itself in 2018, a funny, stylistically-shocking comedy with real shit on its mind—let alone one that does justice to its animating ideology, without ever degenerating into a lecture—isn't entirely novel, maybe, but it sure seems like it is.

You see, every bit of Riley's fucked-up imaginarium—or most of it, anyway, as I'm pretty sure the paper storm in a copy room in an out-of-focus background really is just for laughs—remains in service of the politics Riley espouses in our world.  Which are another thing you could get a little wrong from the trailer, incidentally, at least in terms of focus and scope, though in retrospect it shouldn't have surprised me because I'm reasonably familiar with Boots Riley the Musician and Actual Communist.  It would be easy to prejudge the picture from its starting premise ("black 20something telemarketer makes good with a white accent because guess what? racism in America") and assume it is what it kind of sounds like, and could easily have been, namely 105 minutes of hectoring—possibly funny, possibly not—about whiteness and white privilege and "white people drive like this, you know, not expecting to get summarily executed," and while that kind of thing is good and necessary, it's also not automatically equivalent to "a blast at the movies."  Either way, possibly the kindest gesture Riley makes as screenwriter is his explanation of the "white voice": relaxed, confident, carefree, "like you've paid all your bills"—that is, "what white people wish they sounded like."

It takes the sting out of the gag that white people actually enjoy listening to David Cross or Patton Oswalt blow words out their noseholes, which is simply a canard.

Sorry is concerned with race, certainly, and it's just as concerned with class; it's about all the ways we sell out every day.  Cassius, even as he enthusiastically courts total depravity, offers a never-answered critique of Detroit's art, the only paying audience  for which is just other rich people.  The union agitator Squeeze's real job isn't telemarketing, it's "union agitator," and he's got so much less skin in the game, so to speak, than any of the people he's agitated.

That all means it's concerned with capitalism, of course, and it is some late-late-late-stage capitalism we see here, as filtered through a lens of total absurdity, though I'm not even sure what's absurd and what's not anymoreConsider that Sorry (either on purpose or because sodas make for a nice shibboleth for capitalism overall, and it just worked out that way) makes a little slantwise reference to that unbearably ludicrous Pepsi commercial you might've seen with Kylie Jenner, professional half-sibling and human Photoshop filter (it's the one where Pepsi solves class and racial strife and also police violence); maybe the strongest praise I can give Sorry is that it's almost able to keep up with the bullshit in a world where you can hear that a woman who's worth $900+ million has a gofundme dedicated to getting her up to a billion, and it's not possible to immediately recognize that this gofundme was somebody else's joke.  (That couch they bought sleepy emerald magnate and unlicensed submarine captain Elon Musk was real, after all.  Made of couch atoms and everything.) I don't know if Riley would appreciate my saying so, because Sorry is a movie obviously born out of a heap of righteous anger, but the movie I watched is not so much angry as it is outright bewildered at its funhouse mirror reflection of the real world.

The flipside of being an essentially surrealist joint is that it was always likely to offer too-easy answers (like Squeeze's unionization drive at RegalView that faces fewer difficulties than putting together a work softball league would, because, man, Riley is old; along the same lines, we have Tessa Thompson, as valuable as any of the supporting cast, and at least arguably reduced to the model-hot prize you win or lose based on your Wokeness Quotient).  It was also always likely to leap off the rails entirely, if only from sheer momentum.  I'd say it does both of those things eventually, though I think the point where it flipped over for me is significantly later than the point it did for, say, the couple who straight-up walked out of it, after a certain genre-cracking reveal that comes about an hour and ten minutes in.  Really, the problem is it reaches its natural ending only a little bit after that, and the natural ending to this film, of course, is cruel and horrible and bitter and nihilistically funny; the film proceeds nevertheless, presumably because Riley does not want to send us out on a cruel, horrible, bitter, nihilistic note, possibly because he's simply right that it's better to hold to hope than to inactive despair.

It's something special, anyway.  Even someone who stridently disagreed with its creator's politics, I think, might be able get something positive out of the experience of it, at least if they're not a total dick about needing their movies to take themselves too seriously—for one thing, in case I haven't made it clear, it's really funny, in rather creative ways for a modern comedy, boasting a host of very fine comedic performances from across its whole cast, especially from Stanfield in the lead, whose lanky physique and hunched shoulders conjure a character you want to root for before he even speaks one word (in either voice), though Armie Hammer embodying a coked up 21st century master of the universe stereotype (with really precise color vision) is rather choice, too.  Meanwhile, if you agree with Riley's politics, Sorry To Bother You is an outright joy. So let me assume that's the case for me, and that Riley isn't one of those purity bastards who failed to vote for Clinton, which, since politics is the main level upon which he wants us to enjoy his movie, if he were, I'd definitely have to knock a point off the final score.

Score:  9/10


  1. Was looking through old comments on Languish and saw the linkage to your site. I was looking forward to your take on this. It's my favorite movie of 2018 by far.

    1. Righteous, old pal. It is a good one, isn't it? Got my only blu-ray in the mail last Tuesday, and have been really eager to rewatch it; I wouldn't say it's my *favorite*, but it's in my top five or maybe even top four. Also, if you see this, you gotta help me out as to who exactly you are from Languish. (I'm thinking Syt, but I'm wrong often enough.)

    2. "own blu-ray," Jesus, this autocorrect, you know?

    3. Oh, that's right, I think I even might've known that. Well, hey, man, good to see you're still around. Maybe I ought to stop by Languish someday. Or maybe not. It is as silly place, after all.

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