Sundance 2018: Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You

On Film / The Daily — Jan 24, 2018

We begin with Rolling Stone’s David Fear: “Pick any random song by the Coup—we suggest ‘Fat Cats, Bigga Fish’ from their 1994 album Genocide & Juice, or ‘My Favorite Mutiny’ from 2006’s Pick a Bigger Weapon—and you'll get complex anti-corporate screeds and much dropping of Chomsky-esque political science against layered, funky-as-fuck beats. An extended middle finger against the powers that hold people back is this Bay Area hip-hop collective's raison d’etre . . . So the fact that Coup co-founder Boots Riley’s directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, is a take-no-prisoners takedown of big business, mass media, wage-slave labor, blithe billionaire bros and modern life in general will surprise no one even casually familiar with the man’s day job. If anger is an energy, this broad code-switching comedy is a hundred thousand watts of fuck you. That's the movie's blessing and its curse.”

For the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd, this is “a scattershot, intermittently pointed satire whose jokes and insights land with about the same (in)frequency. Like Blindspotting, another of this year’s U.S. Dramatic competitors, Sorry tackles race and identity politics in contemporary Oakland, in this case through the misadventures of Cassius Green (Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield), who makes a name for himself at a local telemarketing firm, mostly by perfecting the ‘white voice’ he uses on the phone. Will Cassius sell out to move up? And will he lose his anarchistic performance-artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), to the office’s politically conscious union advocate, Squeeze (Steven Yeun)? . . . Once Armie Hammer shows up as the company’s amoral CEO, tilting the plot into sci-fi dystopian lunacy, even Stanfield can’t keep Sorry to Bother You anchored to any emotional or political reality.”

“There are bursts of visual creativity everywhere you look,” notes Scott Renshaw in the Salt Lake City Weekly, citing, for example, “a stop-motion segment that nods to the movie’s debt to Michel Gondry . . . Riley simply has his eye on so many targets relating to a corporatized world—sacrifices of integrity made to get ahead, militarized police supporting business interests—that many of them don’t have the opportunity to land, or to make it clear how much of the tone is amused, and how much is genuinely angry. But if you want a movie that swings its half horse/half man junk for all to see, this one’s for you.”

Vulture’s Emily Yoshida suggests that “when you think of the tradition Riley is working in—punk cinema in the universe of films like Repo Man or the cult oddity Blood Diner, it could have lost the plot a lot more easily. . . . This is ultraprogressive, radical storytelling that manages to stay totally joyful and inventive throughout.”

“Early on,” writes Anthony Kaufman for Screen, “Riley drops clues about his story’s alternative universe, just a wee bit more absurd than the current United States, where the country’s most popular TV show is called I Got the S#&* Kicked Out of Me and a company called WorryFree Living offers citizens a job, three meals a day, and a place to sleep, all within the walls of a prison-like existence. The film also introduces us to its occasional whimsical visual language: When ‘Cash’ makes calls, he and his office desk literally drop into the home of the person he is calling. The film’s occasionally cartoonish production design and funky soundtrack also bolster the film’s almost surrealist world.”

“In terms of its grounding in a recognizable contemporary world, the movie doesn't muster much clarity of vision,” agrees David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter, adding that “it feels more like one long stoner riff than a serious observation of shifting cultural realities. But while the filmmaking is raw, undisciplined and groaning under a cargo of self-conscious quirks, it scores points for originality and wacky creativity.”

Putney Swope by way of Dear White People, Riley’s wacky odyssey fires a zillion different wacky ideas at once, and more often than not, hits its targets,” finds IndieWire’s Eric Kohn.

Sorry to Bother You deliberately runs off its rails and then out of the railyard entirely,” writes Alissa Wilkinson for Vox. “It’s a fantastical, weird, funny, devastating movie.”

“Even with the advantage of reading this review, you are not prepared,” Gregory Ellwood assures us at the Playlist, noting that “production designer Jason Kisvarday deserves substantial praise for creating an environment that is just one step away from today.”

“This is a movie with a point of view that maintains the rationale of that point of view throughout,” writes Mike Ryan at Uproxx. “Sorry to Bother You doesn’t exist just to be a ‘crazy movie’; it succeeds despite its ‘craziness.’”

At RogerEbert.com, Brian Tallerico finds “nothing predictable, nothing derivative or generic, nothing routine. It is what we want from Sundance in that it’s a confrontational, unforgettable announcement of a new talent.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Tre’vell Anderson interviews Riley, who wrote the screenplay in 2012. “A couple of years later, the script picked up traction after being published in McSweeney's quarterly, prompting Riley to look into directors. ‘At one point, I hit up Richard Ayoade and he was like, “I can’t do this,”’ Riley recalls. ‘He was like, “You need to do this.” I was like, “Nobody’s gonna let me direct it.” And he was like, “You're the only one that can do this. Anybody else is gonna . . . it up.” And he convinced me to go ahead and just go for it.’”

Steve Greene talks with Armie Hammer for IndieWire.

Update, 1/25: “This will definitely resonate with young people busting their hump at a miserable job,” predicts Jordan Hoffman in the Guardian, “but, weirdly enough considering its pro-labor stance, it’s best served as Boots Riley’s calling card for bigger films.”

Updates, 1/26: “Often guffaw-out-loud funny, the movie pretty much slips into something of a mess but remains a must-see,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.

Miriam Bale for W: “Stanfield holds the film together with his lanky ambling and his odd humor, which has a way of being both alienating and attractive; his deep intelligence really comes through in the part. Hammer, too, comes off as super smart and so game. Despite many bold stylistic touches, including a Wayne Thiebaud color palette that perfectly captures the look of Oakland, Riley does his best as a director to not hamper his brilliant actors, and allowing them to vibe off each other. The few scenes between Stanfield and Hammer are electric; the only problem is there aren’t enough.”

Aramide A. Tinubu talks with Riley and his cast.

Annapurna has picked up Sorry to Bother You in a “seven-figure deal,” reports Variety’s Brent Lang.

Updates, 1/27: “Nearly as deranged as it is politically engaged,” writes Variety’s Peter Debruge, Boots Riley’s sui generis Sorry to Bother You is the kind debut feature that knocks your socks off, tickles your bare tootsies with goose feathers for a while, then goes all Kathy Bates in the final stretch, ultimately taking a sledgehammer to your kneecaps. What, there’s no category on Netflix for movies like that? Too bad: The Oakland-based rapper isn’t waiting for permission to speak his piece, pioneering a new form of wildly inventive, highly confrontational satire.”

Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey finds that “Tessa Thompson doesn’t get quite enough to do, her individual moments (particularly the glimpse of her performance art) are inspired. It’s kind of mess, I suppose—but then again, so was Putney Swope.

Update, 1/28: For RogerEbert.com, Jomo Fray talks with Riley “about his approach to filmmaking, art, and the importance of honesty in your work.”

Updates, 1/30: “I loved every second,” tweets Jordan Peele.

“Featuring a soundtrack made up partially of Riley’s own songs, and a digitally-influenced score by Tune-Yards, Sorry to Bother You does often signal the arrival of a fresh new filmmaking voice, even if the film overextends its welcome,” finds Jordan Raup at the Film Stage.

Update, 1/31: From Donna K. at Hammer to Nail: “Though narratively similar to Idiocracy—a comparison I heard throughout the weekend at Sundance—Sorry to Bother You doesn’t set up the smart vs. dumb divide that ultimately made me hate that film; where Idiocracy took pot shots at the people, Sorry to Bother You is for the people.”

Update, 2/6: “With Sorry to Bother You we spent time on calibration and experimentation,” editor Terel Gibson tells Filmmaker, “but what was particularly unusual was how well the film worked in the early stages. It’s really a testament to Boots’s talents, specificity, and this amazing cast. There was a feast of riches that made for lots of great options. Boots and I kept a close eye on making sure that we didn’t shy away from losing moments that serviced themselves more than they serviced the overall story.”

Update, 2/27: “Despite flashes of ingenuity throughout, the off-the-walls stick-it-to-the-man lampoon never lives up to its fantastic first half,” finds Dylan Kai Dempsy at Ioncinema.

Sundance 2018 Index. For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.