Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews, Kate Berlant, Michael X. Sommers, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Robert Longstreet, David Cross (voice), Patton Oswalt (voice), Lily James (voice), Forest Whitaker, Rosario Dawson (voice)
Written by: Boots Riley
Directed by: Boots Riley
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use
Running Time: 105
Date: 07/05/2018

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Telephone Polarizer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If movies existed in a vacuum, then Sorry to Bother You — written and directed by Oakland's Boots Riley — would be a mixed bag.

It has a change of gears so abrupt as to feel off-putting. It's hilarious for a while, and then it's just... weird.

However, movies do not exist in a vacuum, and Sorry to Bother You, which opens Friday in Bay Area theaters, is notable in many other ways. Above all, it's a rebel film, a film for any viewer that's sick and tired and angry about the world today.

Up-and-coming star Lakeith Stanfield, with his lanky frame and soft, wounded eyes, stars as Cassius Green; say it out loud and the reason is clear.

Cassius lives in less-than-ideal quarters (a great early joke) and can't seem to make ends meet. He goes to jobs with wildly fake resumes and references, and, despite being caught, gets a job at Regalview as a telemarketer.

It's a terrible job, compounded by the fact that no one wants to buy anything. However, in the next cubicle, Cash meets veteran telemarketer Langston (Danny Glover), who encourages Cassius to use his "white voice."

The "white voice" (hilariously dubbed by David Cross) works, and Cassius is catapulted through the ranks, into a world of highly-paid salespeople in glamorous offices, all of whom are instructed to use "white voice" all the time.

(Patton Oswalt and Lily James provide other "white voices," while Rosario Dawson turns up in a vocal cameo as an introductory voice in the elevator upstairs.)

Cassius's artist girlfriend Detroit (the amazing Tessa Thompson) joins in as the grunt workers try to unionize, while Cassius is invited to a swanky party to meet the company CEO (Armie Hammer).

Also at the party, he accidentally discovers what's really going on.

Sorry to Bother You, whose screenplay was published in 2014 in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, veers hard into a non-reality world. In the background are ads for a company that promises "worry free living," which comes close to slavery.

The movie is sidesplitting for about half of its running time — the reliable Terry Crews helps in a few scenes — and then it becomes disjointed, pinging around like a pinball in a machine full of lights and flash.

It's in the same vein as things like Alex Cox's punk-rock L.A. odyssey Repo Man and this year's How to Talk to Girls at Parties.

Both of those movies feature aliens, but Sorry to Bother You goes a little further. The reveal here is creepy and queasy, and a little confusing. Does it mean anything, or is this just an attempt to squeeze virtually everything possible into one movie?

Certainly the movie is angry about plenty of things (racism, capitalism, stupidity, etc.), but perhaps this anger also results in a lack of discipline, or focus.

The haywire music by art band tUnE-yArDs (as well as songs by Riley's hip-hop group The Coup) adds to the disarray. Even Stanfield's face constantly registers a blend of dismay and disgust.

And yet for all its messiness and crude ambition Sorry to Bother You is still hard to dismiss, because it comes from a true place, and exists for real people.

Perhaps it's even part of a movement. Movies like Justin Simien's Dear White People (and its excellent spinoff TV series), Jordan Peele's Get Out, Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, and upcoming releases like Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman and Carlos López Estrada's Blindspotting seem to tackle current concerns through clever combinations of humor and horror (that is, to be horrified, rather than scared).

In other words, Sorry to Bother You is certainly here to bother, and is not sorry at all.

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