[Editorial note: I've been spending time away at another site, but decided that the conditions there just weren't appropriate for the writing I'd like to do about TV and cinema (timeliness, image controls, etc.) They, appropriately, really just want to talk about games, so I'm going to start trying to post here about other kinds of media on a twice-weekly basis, be it TV series or movies or whathaveyou.]
Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley's initial foray into moviemaking, is clearly a project that he's been sitting with for some time. There are details embedded in the story and the production that can provide the careful observer a lot of joy and it's part of what makes the combination alternate reality/urban comedy/morality play a success. The message of the film is both deeply embedded and often parodied at the same time, which brings another arcing theme to the forefront: No matter how crazy things get, you gotta go to work.
The dual message from the very beginning is that capitalism clearly isn't working for a lot of people and the amount of lying that people often have to do in order to participate in that system is ridiculous. We see this from the opening scene, when Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) tries to present a trophy and a plaque indicating what a great employee he was at former jobs that he never had. The joke, however, is on him, because the telemarketing firm he's applying to will hire any warm body off the street. Once he grasps the basic concept of continuing with the Big Lie by adopting his "white voice" to be a successful caller (hearkening back to Dave Chappelle's assertion that "Every Black American is bilingual. We speak street vernacular and we speak job interview."), Cassius begins to climb the socioeconomic ladder at the office, to the point where he's elevated to the level of Power Caller; a title that fairly drips with the multiple meanings of those in society with money being not only able to exercise the greater freedoms that it creates, but having access to the knowledge of how modern society is even uglier than many people imagine. At that point, he has a choice to make: abandon his social ties and the basic morality of standing up for the majority or continue on the path of societally-determined success (i.e. wealth.)
Along the way, Riley continues to present situations and characters that ask a variety of extremely overt and very subtle questions about the state of society and how many lies everyone has to willingly participate in to keep it moving (Gotta go to work...) These range from the most popular show on TV, "I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me" being displayed as "I Got the S@!# Kicked Out of Me", presenting the fiction that profanity isn't actually in use, to the very basic idea that the only measure of success in modern America is making enough money so that no one else can tell you what to do (reminding one of Office Space's Peter Gibbons' perfect job: "I would do... nothing.") The screenplay is smart enough to take those subtle jabs like the barely concealed profanity and elevate it to something more elaborate. In that case, it would be Mr. _____ (Omari Hardwick), as the guide for Cassius once he makes the coveted level of Power Caller. Mr. _____ is the only other non-white person in the room; thus, his name can't be spoken, as an example of something that is too profane to be revealed, since he serves the overlords (like WorryFree CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer)) both adeptly and very willingly.
But there are a number of smaller creative details that also appear, from the fun with names (Cassius "Cash" Green, Diana DeBauchery) to Danny Glover tossing in his trademark line from 20 years of Lethal Weapon pictures ("I'm too old for this shit.") Riley also gives us comedic bits that demonstrate the characters' awareness of the bizarre reality and falsehoods that they're all living through, such as Anderson (Robert Longstreet) becoming very disturbed about how DeBauchery and Johnny (Michael X. Sommers) are regurgitating the sales/capitalist message that they've absorbed a bit too well to an office full of employees that will be repelled by it; or Cassius easily entering the VIP room at the bar, using the password that never changes and discovering that he's just one more obstacle to be walked over in a room full of regular people aspiring to a higher status, just like he is.
There were some great production approaches. Depicting the world of the telemarketer dropping into the room where their target is answering the phone was a slick depiction of the age of social media, which often brings the realities of those we're interacting with into our most intimate spaces. The setting of Oakland, a city long known for its working resistance to the social order, but now undergoing a rapid course of gentrification, was a great choice. The contrast between Cassius' one room garage apartment, filled with the poorly lit detritus of being lived in, and the starkly white, museum-like apartment with its view of the Oakland city center, was well done. Lift's quip about the "high production values" of the Claymation movie that introduced his Equisapiens program was also a nice study in contrasts; the use of a medium from childhood TV specials introducing a project of grotesquerie maintained the comedic element of this film and made imagining that kind of delivery a feasible choice, even in our own (slightly) more sane world.
Stanfield did an excellent job in the starring role; so much so that certain scenes attempting to depict his struggle with his new life choices seemed superfluous. We didn't need a couple minutes of him explaining how torn he was when that was already splattered across his face every time he faced the camera. This actually contributed to a bit of a slow period in the middle of the film where I found myself almost doing the "hurry up and move on" wave. We don't really need a lengthy conversation between Cassius and Detroit (Tessa Thompson) to know that the former isn't quite on the same awareness page as the latter. Indeed, Thompson's role was kind of disappointing, in that her artistic depiction of what was happening on the streets didn't add a whole lot to the overall story. Similarly, Squeeze (Steven Yeun), as the labor organizer in the office, was kind of pro forma. Yes, Cassius needed someone new to show him the realities of labor-management action and politics, but Squeeze didn't serve much purpose other than to provide the rather obvious romantic complication.
And that's my one real complaint with the film: the messages occasionally felt too obvious and shaped to provide an easy transition between the second and third acts. We didn't need to be hit over the head quite so hard (with a cola can or not) with the impact of these changes on Cassius. Similarly, we didn't really need the happy ending where he ended up getting the girl (back.) Thankfully, there is a little moment at the end that brings the air of bleakness and the bizarre back to something that was edging toward the formulaic, but I think Riley could have gone even farther in keeping things on the fringes of sanity and still gotten the positive audience reaction that studios lust after.
Regardless, it's definitely a worthwhile film that occasionally hits one squarely between the eyes when considering modern America and its, uh, excesses of all kinds. As Riley noted in an interview, the current political situation made some parts of the script a bit too "on the nose". Something to think about when we all head back to work...