It feels like it’s been a long time coming. While US audiences and critics were shouting about Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You from the rooftops back in the summer, the UK was feeling left out on the cold. No release date on the horizon for us. Twitter nearly went into meltdown and the clamour only stopped when the London Film Festival announced the title as a late addition to its programme. Now, at last, a wider audience gets the chance to see it this week. Was it worth waiting for?
The short answer is “yes” – and the fuss is justified as well. It’s hard to imagine a more surreal or, indeed, more savage satire, one that doesn’t mess around when it comes to hitting its targets fair and square. And Riley has plenty in his sights. Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) – known, somewhat ironically, to his friends as Cash – is down on his luck and desperately needs a job. He gets one – the one that nobody wants. Telemarketing. Ironically, he turns out to be spectacularly good at it, is promoted to being a Power Caller and, even among such illustrious company, is way ahead of the competition. His number one client is the one everybody wants, a company called Worry Free which offers an apparently idyllic lifestyle. But is it too good to be true?
Debuts don’t come more spectacular – or more innovative. Riley’s first foray into the cinema is outrageous, even unhinged at times, original, witty to the point of hilarity and also succeeds in being the modern equivalent of a screwball comedy. But that’s just one side of it. On the other, it’s a deeply uncomfortable watch, because some of what we’re shown is just a hair’s breadth from reality – if that. The telemarketing workers striking for better money and conditions who find themselves being beaten by the police. Cash becoming an instant on-line celeb when a video showing him being hit by a drinks can goes viral, which in turn thrusts him into the limelight of a truly disgusting reality TV show. And that’s only the beginning.
It’s a list of targets as long as your arm, but most of Riley’s ire is directed at capitalism and exploitation and he’s transparently open about wanting us to feel the same. While his vision is sometimes uneven, there’s no doubting its originality. When Cash starts his career as a telemarketer, we’re shown just how intrusive his calls are: he literally drops into the lives of the people he’s calling, along with his desk and phone, and he makes for a disruptive presence – whatever they may be doing. Every single one of those calls gets a big laugh – laughs that are tempered with discomfort and a touch of having been there ourselves. We’ve all had one of those calls, after all.
Yet with so many targets, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Riley has over-stretched himself just a touch. A few less would have made for an even sharper film, if that can be imagined. He doesn’t give any answers, just leaving the audience to think through what they’ve seen and make up their own mind. At a time when Hollywood relies so heavily on risk-averse projects – reboots and sequels abound – Sorry To Bother You isn’t just a refreshing change. It’s a wake-up call.
Freda Cooper | ★★★ 1/2
Comedy, Satire, Drama | UK, 7 December (2018) | Universal | Dir. Boots Riley | Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Danny Glover and Jermaine Fowler.