Sorry to Bother You (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Sorry to Bother You (2018)

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Cash needs cash. He's stuck in his uncle's garage, tired of not being able to get privacy with his girlfriend, and takes a job at a call center to make some sales. When he turns out to be better at this than even he thought he finds himself at the center of a growing union struggle and the company that seeks to exploit him. Boots Riley writes the screenplay for and directs Sorry to Bother You, which stars Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, and Armie Hammer.

Sorry to Bother You's reputation preceded my eventual viewing. I read about how it's an unashamedly leftist stab at capitalism, hollow art, being beaten down by the increased exploitation of those without means, and call centers. While I'm passionate about all those subjects it's the call center bit that grabbed me. I worked at an insurance center for five years and one of the first things I experienced on the floor was a boyfriend calling in to find out if his girlfriend's policy would cover the damage he caused in a rage after killing her cat.

When Sorry to Bother You works, it's because writer/director Boots Riley understands how we end up in situations of ethical and emotional extremes that makes dealing with cat murderers the only option. He spares no one above the minimum wage, creating grotesque caricatures of ruthless management and floors of perpetual depression bathed in blue while each worker struggles to make the light of a sale shine for once. His is a world of shit jobs ruled over by shit humans while shit conditions consistently fail to improve because everyone's mired in shit.I'm usually not as crass but Riley's unsparing look at this world is as pure an encapsulation of modern shit-life syndrome as I've recently experienced. The tone he pursues with Sorry to Bother you is a manic farce, tossing out jokes amidst the dirty living conditions and dreary offices that are there less to make us laugh and more to give his characters something to cling to that's not their awful surroundings. This isn't easy to pursue - let alone keep up - but for an hour and twenty minutes or so Sorry to Bother You unfolds like a fevered miracle of aggression and despair. Riley succeeds in capturing the personal fragmentation of living in late capitalism that Spike Lee attempted with She Hate Me. But Riley maintains focus on working conditions and the horrors of capitalism while Spike digressed into lesbian pregnancy businesses (should point out here that She Hate Me is uniquely terrible but terrible is still terrible).

Tonal consistency ain't Riley's gig and Sorry to Bother You is all the better for abandoning it. This works best when Cash (Lakeith Stanfield) is literally dropped into people's homes as he makes his calls. There's the first shock of seeing Cash break through into someone's home, itself a tidy metaphor for how insistent modern marketing is, and then there's the painful closing note when he tries to sell a grieving woman dictionaries. There is no pain so great that can't be marketed to, and the last twist of the knife is seeing Cash so desperate to keep his job that he ignores his empathy to push on toward the sale. That's the power of dissociation that late capitalism is great at, exploiting our ability to form connection in brief conversation to earn just a bit more money.

I also greatly respected how Sorry to Bother You leaned into the importance of both unions and violent resistance. For the former there's a great stretch of amusing interactions between Cash, union leader Squeeze (Steven Yeun), and disarmingly honest buddy Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) that shows how successful unions reach across class, race, and culture to find solidarity. The latter I'll leave you to discover if you decide to watch Sorry to Bother You, but what I'll write is that the media has gotten so good at covering up their role in international devastation that grotesque violations of humanity can't be fought only on grounds of propaganda. Time may come that beating the truth into the ruling class is an absolute necessity. To that last point, Armie Hammer plays the visible hand of the ruling class with such coked-out disregard to his public image that Oliver Stone should look him up for a third Wall Street film if Stone feels like making up for the second.

Then there's the last twenty minutes of Sorry to Bother You that made me grateful I waited a few days before writing. They don't work and veer straight into making literal the class paranoia that makes the rough 75% or so before it fly by. That written, I admire that Riley commits to this part as much as he did the rest of Sorry to Bother You, and I like how he tries to repurpose images of the black working class into something slightly more empowering and less racially grotesque.Less acceptable, politically and in the context of Sorry to Bother You's overall effectiveness, is how poorly written the women are. Granted, none of the characters are particularly robust, but they serve symbolic functions effectively. Reducing Tessa Thompson's girlfriend role to that of a sex trophy is the opposite of that. There's great opportunity for Riley to poke at the debatable effectiveness of art and representation in the overall struggle against capitalism but, save for one excellent line from Cash, that's wasted. Instead she gets adorned with quirky art and is the center of a sexual tug-of-war between Cash and Squeeze complete with shots of her mostly naked body. As a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, this kind of reductive view of women is more common than it should be and - while it's worse with Democrats and Republicans - is still unacceptable both in praxis and art.

Having slept on Sorry to Bother You's initial release and taking some time to process the overall experience did me some good. It's not so overwhelming as to induce affective overload, but is so pointed at condemning late capitalism that it still serves as a great glimpse into contemporary leftist struggles. Wish it could have come without the sexism the left still needs to work on, but like with all political struggle I can cheer on comrades when they're spot on and critique them when they're moving backwards. There's no progress unless we do.

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Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Screenplay written and directed by Boots Riley.
Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, and Armie Hammer.

Posted by Andrew

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