Sorry to Bother You
Directed by Boots Riley
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
So along comes this movie that feels like it’s everything I’ve always wanted but after I finished watching it all I could say was “meh.”
If Joker is full of empty left-wing calories then Sorry to Bother You is everything a growing body needs. It’s furious at the right targets. It’s righteous and carefully considered. It’s on point with it’s diversity and representation and you know – Boots Riley is always politically on point (he feels the Bern). So what gives? There’s been more than enough films on here that I’ve given a hard time for being too wishy washy with their political messaging (yeah I’m looking at you Clive Owen) that it seems like a film that manages to get it right in all the ways that matter seems like something that I should be praising to all the high heavens (“I award this five Marx out of five!”).
Well – what gives is this: there’s way more to a film than it’s political dimensions and frankly given a choice between watching something that’s political right on and watching something that’s actually cool and weird and interesting and exciting and fun and emotionally engaging and all of that stuff – well yeah: there’s more to life than just watching polemics you know?
And gosh darn it – in a way that kinda reminds me of Arrival – it feels like this is a film that has all of the potential in the world and it just: wastes it all. I mean like shit: when that first trailer first dropped it looked like an unholy marriage of Michel Gondry and Ken Loach. The bit where Lakeith Stanfield calls someone up on the phone and then literally falls into their house is pure genius. And as a jumping off point for more cool craziness seems like the most promising thing in the world (maybe later on in the film they’ll use a telephone call to get into someone’s house or something?) but then the movie just – does nothing with it. It’s just a throwaway joke that they do nothing else with. And oh god – it feels like the movie is full of stuff to the brim with stuff like this: all these things that don’t really connect to anything else (looks at Tessa Thompson’s ears).
This might be a little unfair but compare and contrast with something like say – Hot Fuzz – where every single line and moment connects up with something else. Where even a choice line that’s complete in itself (“You want to be a big cop in a small town? Fuck off up the model village!”) ends up being a lovely bit of foreshadowing for the big climax that takes place well – in the model village. And you know – in contrast to that kinda stuff Sorry to Bother You is just – random stuff happening.
Which I think actually helps me to get to a wider point which has always bothered me and bothers me to this day which is basically: why do left-wing people always have such a crap understanding of aesthetics? Because from the stuff I’ve experienced it seems like these two things (being politically good and making things look good) are somehow irreconcilably irreconcilable and I just don’t understand why… Is it because there’s only enough room in people’s heads for only one thing? And that if you get good at politics then you don’t really get how good art is made? Or are they somehow intrinsically diametrically opposed? That if you’re good at presentation then you’re Tony Blair and if you’re good at politics then you’re Jeremy Corbyn and never shall the two meet?
I don’t know.
But I do know – Sorry to Bother You is almost definitely a film that’s better to nod your head to when someone mentions it at a party and maybe list on a dating profile so you can attract the right kind of person than it is to – you know – actually watch lol
My main problem with Sorry to Bother You is also my main compliment in that the “twist” undoes all the good work of the movie, and it’s annoying because it was doing a lot of good work.
The premise is fairly bleak as the main character is led into selling out his soul, his personality, his class, and his race just to be allowed to have some respect in the work place. As he delves further in not only is he having to be more evil but he loses touch with what he was selling out for in the first place, and of course as he is forced to perform for a room full of white people, he realises all he has gained is a higher class of indignity, while all those people he left behind now also hate him. The film shows that the main characters don’t have to be moustache twirling villains to be seduced by corporate greed, it’s just a series of rational choices and it’s done in a way where you are kind of hoping he will sell out just so you see what happens next.
And this is the moment the movie goes wrong. Literally as you think he is about to be offered the keys to the super-villain’s lair we instead get the equisapiens plot and it’s like “oh what now?” And I get it, you’re a debut writer, the plot has been getting darker and darker, and you need to go that one step further to not only surprise the audience but to surprise your character into seeing the error of his ways. It’s also an ending that the audience definitely forget and for many filmmakers that is the most important outcome, otherwise they have basically just remade Devil Wears Prada without Meryl Streep. Except that the final act just doesn’t really work, so yes it’s memorable but all your remember is that it got weird.
It’s not like we weren’t warned, the UK had to wait 5 months for this movie to be released in the cinema and all the reviews suggested that “you won’t believe where this goes” and I agree it was unexpected, but it also rejects the patience buildup it had been fostering up until that point. Instead it turned away from brutal social commentary and towards a sort of Kevin Smith style of “edgy” slapstick. And this is why Joel’s point was spot on, there are tonnes of good bits but all of them have been thrown on the ideas pile with a kind of thoughtless about how things can work together. It’s odd to see something be so self-assured in terms of its production design and casting end up seeming like it was almost begging for attention.
I often worry about my own attention span, because I used to really read a lot and watch a lot of stuff with subtitles and learn new stuff and now it takes a huge push to get me to engage with anything more challenging than looking at Twitter.
In my last bit I spoke about Sorry to Bother You being desperately attention seeking, but then I felt that was a lot unfair because if it didn’t try to attract attention I would never watch it. Apparently The Lighthouse, release a few weeks ago, is very good but it’s in black and white and it refuses to compromise and my brain just puts it on the “maybe” pile which sits right next to the “probably never” pile.
But perhaps I am being hard on myself and Sorry to Bother You. Sure in the 90s there was Le Haine, which was hardly a cinema blockbuster, but if you wanted to sneak through some mildly anti-authoritarian undergraduate philosophy to the mainstream western consciousness you had to make The Matrix or Fight Club. In other words audiences will only show up for ludicrously entertaining setpiece movies populated by ludicrously handsome performers and then maybe they’ll walk away with a few considerations about the nature of reality, the meaning of life, and the legitimacy of political authority. I have to say ultimately it’s the King Fu bits I return to in the Matrix rather than speculation about the nature of reality.
I went to see Onward last week which is a movie which makes itself completely clear it’s about grief and acceptance but finds a way to bind that up in a dungeons and dragons story. Weirdly and at the end of the movie, as I blinked back the manufactured tears, I wanted more D&D chat and less tugging of my jaded heart strings.
Sorry to Bother You has bright, colourful set design, it has an attractive cast, it has a few good jokes and yes, also mutants, but that is the extent of the spoonful of sugar provided so that we swallow unionising, class solidarity, hyper-exploitation, and racial politics. Despite my rapidly diminishing ability to concentrate, my only frustration was I wanted more class warfare and fewer mutants, but I can see why as far as the film was concerned the mutants and their subsequent revolution allow for a nice piece of dessert for the patient audience.
OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
Twitter / Barbican Comic Forum
You know I came into revisiting Sorry To Bother You with the assumption that I’d complain at Joel and Jonathan for daring to criticise this film.
Reluctantly, I kind of get the complaint. It’s clear on the 2nd run around, that where the progression of the idea conveyed is coherent, the storytelling feels like it takes perhaps too hard of a left, about 2/3rds in and the horsemen come to feel deeply disconnected from the telephone calls. First time I saw this film, it was like a reward for having faith in films, it was one of the best cinematic rides I’d had in years, in the 2nd turn about – it was a flawed masterpiece. It makes grave stumbles in terms of storytelling, but it’s aggressively unconventional storytelling approach, the fact that it’s constantly hilarious and it being a film that I would, as Joel said, put on my dating profile for compatibility – more than make up for it.
It’s still a great artistic work. It’s freewheeling, imaginative, daring, political satire that doesn’t simply hold a goofy xerox up to the status quo but offers potent, thoughtful reflections on it (and our role in it). The bit where he goes on Colbert to whistleblow only to be met by outrage and indifference was as one writer might put it “chef’s kiss”. Is that the phrase?
What STBY has going for it on first viewing is pure, unadulterated surprise. There’s no planet you see the Equisapien coming. It’s insane, it’s nutty and it never lets you catch your breath between bouts of gasping and guffawing – it’s a wry comment on late stage capitalism. On your first viewing, it’s a funny, thoughtful twist. On your second viewing, it feels disconnected from what came before. What we just ran through was the individual versus the collective in the face of a exploitative system. We just sat through cultures and class appropriating each other for gain. The Equisapien feels like a seperate comment – same system, different branch. (Are they called equisapiens? I dunno, I’m going with it.). Structurally, it’s a tragic flaw in a great work – as an experience, I’d give it all the stars.
But that’s the second viewing and I still remember shrieking at people for months after it came out how it was like some stranger saw inside my brain and found the perfect movie I didn’t know I wanted. It was a cinematic rush. I was racing from scene to scene, idea to idea until the film ran out of things to blow up and went to credits.
So I guess what we have is a tension between experience and storytelling. As an experience, Sorry is unquestionable. It’s funny. It’s stylish. It makes you think. It’s a jolt of adrenaline in a world of Bob Iger-bots and prestige cinema you “should” see. It makes you think and it has a banging soundtrack and a clear look while it does it. As if Douglas Adams woke up on the wrong side of an American class war. As storytelling though, it’s disjointed – it feel like it switches story half way through and you sort of feel a bit tired as a result, like you’re watching a film that includes half of the sequel without teasing you with 2 years of trailers. Is a story still good if it doesn’t hold up the 2nd time around? I guess my answer to that is if you see a painting one day, and you say “hey that’s a wonderful moving thing right there”, but if you go back the next day and suddenly feel “meh”, is the painting suddenly not a good painting? Does that eradicate the 1st experience? I think if a story is able to get me one time – really get me – that’s all I need. That moment, that rush. It’s enough for me to keep thinking – how’d he do that? I think I’d take that electric rush in a cinema any time over a decent movie that I really dug over several viewings.
And I’m going to weave in my thoughts about Locke and Key here as I missed the boat on that chat – but oddly they feel like polar opposites. Locke and Key is perfect storytelling. It’s twisty, hooky and surprising at every storytelling level. And I could give a fuck about it. I just – what is the point of this, what is it saying, what is it here to do apart from make me feel enough feelings to buy the next book? Oh there’s a key and a witch and oh there’s a threat. It’s a perfect Hollywood petri dish. Like Joe Hill hung out with some higher ups over there, nodded along and said “Oh I getcha” and gave them their perfect thing. It’s like gourmet McDonalds. Yeah it’s tasty as fuck and a joy to devour – but it has nothing to say or offer about anything. If I read it again, I’ll still have fun – but on the 2nd ride, where Sorry will always excite with the way it sees the world and it’s humour – Locke will simply offer another acceptable distraction for an hour or so, only it gets slightly less acceptable every time – and Sorry will always be exactly on point. 20 years from now, Sorry will offer an eyeline into this moment, a genuine take on the way our world works and Locke will have a cliffhanger.
Voice over construction. You want both, for sure. But voice, voice is where we get the interesting things, the things that stay lodged in your head – the things that every storyteller you love needs to see to become the storyteller you love. Or we can just watch Robert McKee instruction videos about circular story structures until we fold into ourselves, into an endless implosion of perfectly middling intertextuality, until time stops, and the song of the cultural apocalypse is finally sung – Tron 3 is released.
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