To create a world from scratch requires a force of imagination and stamina. To recreate a world requires something different, a unique worldview that looks at the same picture of the world we’re all looking at (as much as we can trust we’re observing the same thing) and see that the frame is tilted in a certain direction by a few degrees or so. That is the kind of world that Boots Riley brings to bear in Sorry to Bother You.
The film is set in a reimagined version of Oakland, California. This Oakland is a bit more absurdist, a bit more fantastical, a few degrees off. The film is colored like a Michel Gondry film and set in a world not unlike Being John Malkovich. Like those directors Boots Riley excels at creating a vivid world in which his characters live, in which people suffer and laugh and work and participate in art and protest. There are moments throughout the film when Riley’s direction provides a pleasant jolt. When Cash (Lakeith Stanfield) literally drops into the living rooms and dining rooms of his telecommunications customers, it is a visceral way of experiencing the bizarre intimacy of a phone conversation, the conflicting feeling of being right in the room with someone while being miles and miles away.
Sorry to Bother You is loaded with absurdist humor. The TV shows (I Got the Shit Beat Out of Me) and the ubiquitous company WorryFree are, sadly, barely-exaggerated versions of their real-world counterparts. This is how Boots Riley sees modernity: dumbed down television, simplified rap lyrics and corporate interests that don’t consider the humanity of their workers.
The absurdist humor isn’t limited to these large themes. It also comes across in the dialogue like when Squeeze (Steven Yuen) gives too much information about his sex life during a protest speech or when Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) talks about the weapons he brought to the first RegalView strike. By far the best implementation of this humor is the scene between Cash and Salvador when Cash is about to cross the picket line for the first time. The two men aggressively compliment each other until they are forcibly separated by Langston (Danny Glover).
All of these pieces come together to form a rich vibrant world but sometimes the connection between those pieces isn’t so smooth. Cash’s decision to use the white voice isn’t a laborious contemplation that he sweats over but something that he almost immediately accepts and implements. Similarly, when Cash breaks the picket line his aggressiveness is almost surprising. It doesn’t come out of nowhere but there isn’t much of a build either. Cash is under tremendous pressure to help his uncle pay his mortgage, so the rationale is there even if the execution is a bit jumpy. With the film leaping from outrageous scene to outrageous scene, pieces of Cash’s humanity are lost along the way. The audience understands the character but does not experience the depth of his emotional state.
So, the world is well-crafted, the humor mostly lands, the protagonist’s arc is more or less solid. Thematically the film satirizes the rampant capitalism that is widening the wealth gap every minute of every day. There are some minor editing issues in the film, a scene that could be interjected here or there, but it doesn’t hurt the overall effect. The major flaw the film has, and it is debatable, is the twist. It’s obvious as you watch the film that WorryFree is up to something, it is simply a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Boots Riley had done plenty of groundwork to set up the absurdist world of the film and yet, the twist feels like a bit much. To a certain extent a twist has to be unexpected, but it also has to obey the rules of the universe that the director has created. This twist violates that golden rule.
Or maybe it doesn’t. Is it that far-fetched to believe that a company like WorryFree would wade into similar waters in the real world? Boots Riley is certainly aware that America waded into those waters years ago and has never quite stepped completely out of that lake into which it has been submerged at various depths over its history. And that is precisely the point of Sorry to Bother You: this world might seem like an absurdist fantasy but if you rub your eyes and walk outside you might just see that it is the world in which you are living. There’s nothing scarier than revealing the plain and simple truth.