The indie comedy Sorry to Bother You is one of the most acclaimed films of the summer, enjoying a 94 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I hesitated to spend my time on it; I guessed that it was one of those labored, insistent, kindly-remove-your-elbow-from-my-ribs satires that flourish at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film debuted, but tend to crumble to dust when exposed to the harsh eye of the general public. Since there isn’t much of interest at the multiplex this week, though, and since Ross Douthat wanted to discuss it on Projections, the podcast we co-host, I gave Sorry to Bother You a shot. I’m sorry I bothered. The comedy is not just lame, it’s ringing with lameness, wearing out trite gags that were stale to begin with.
Lakeith Stanfield, an appealing actor who had a small part in Get Out and stars on Atlanta, plays a thoughtful, kind-hearted Oakland man named Cassius who is so impoverished that he buys gasoline 40 cents at a time and operates his windshield wipers by pulling on a string. He and his girlfriend, a conceptual artist named Detroit (Tessa Thompson), live in his uncle’s garage.
A young man who is as bright, industrious, and considerate as Cassius would seemingly be in high demand in today’s booming Bay Area job market, but I’ll grant that many movies begin with a flawed premise. At a telemarketing firm, the African-American Cassius learns from an old hand (Danny Glover) that the secret to sales is to fake a “white voice.” Since Cassius already talks like a white guy, for purposes of comic exaggeration this means mentioning squash and Ferraris while affecting a vocal pattern suggesting how Tobey Maguire might speak if his nether regions were embraced by a vise. (Stanfield is dubbed by David Cross when doing the voice.) The white-dudes-talk-like-nerds-on-helium gag has been a staple for black comedians going back 30 years or more; and anyway, it gets beaten to death and trampled to atoms in this movie, which later turns around and makes a joke based on the opposite premise: that in a white world, black people get called upon to flaunt (clichéd assumptions about) their blackness for the delectation of the majority. For Cassius this means that affluent white partygoers importune him for tales of gangsta life and for a rap. He can’t rap, so instead he shouts the phrase “n****r s**t” about 50 times. When it comes to satire, a scalpel is the proper tool. This movie is a boulder dropping on your toe. Detroit, the leading lady, wears giant political messages on her very earrings (at one point, sculptures of men sitting in electric chairs dangle from her lobes), and my head felt as heavy as hers must have.
Cassius’s telemarketing job leads to a rise-up-people plot in which the cubicle workers, complaining of being exploited, go on strike. A strike movie? In 2018? Set at a telemarketing company? The political impulse here is as up to date as a Studebaker. Any telemarketing firm that was shut down by striking workers would simply relocate. You could hardly name an industry that has less cause to fear union unrest. The film’s writer-director, Boots Riley, is an avowed Communist and hip-hop musician (in September of 2001, his group The Coup was due to release an album, entitled Party Music, whose cover showed him and a bandmate blowing up the World Trade Center) who is the child of a 1970s radical lawyer, and it’s almost touching how out of touch he is — like that movie where Brendan Fraser goes into a bomb shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis and doesn’t come out until the Seinfeld era.
Telemarketing provides Riley with a portal to an even more out-there idea, which touches on slavery filtered through science-fiction. The telemarketing firm (somehow) is involved in arms dealing to dictators, in exploiting Africans for minerals used in cellphones, and in other nefarious capitalistic doings, but chiefly it’s a front for slavery recruitment. There’s this wacky company called WorryFree that offers people lifetime employment, security, and nylon wardrobes seemingly designed by the Heaven’s Gate death cult in exchange for people signing away their rights. The (frightening) degree to which some might willingly surrender autonomy and liberty in exchange for economic security could make for an excellent satirical treatment, but this movie isn’t it. This one shows people committing themselves to prison (TV commercials tout efficient-living dormitories and cafeteria dining that look like Attica) and a lifetime of unpaid labor because they’re desperate enough to do anything for three hots and a cot. (If so, why don’t they just rob people till they get put in prison? That would mean living large for a while, plus they might not even get caught.)
In a country where panhandlers ask for spare change while texting friends on their $650 iPhones, Riley’s satiric sally feels far wide of, indeed unacquainted with the location of, the mark. Is he saying black people are in effect slaves to capitalism? Yet most of the cult members shown in the film seem to be white. So we’re all slaves to capitalism because we all have to get up and earn our bread somehow? Isn’t the preceding sentence less true here and now than at almost any point in human history, given that labor-force participation stats show that nearly two out of every five of us simply choose not to work?
I have an idea for a far crazier satire than this supposedly bonkers but vaguely fusty prole-power fable. My idea is about how a Communist hip-hopper attracts the checkbook of a billionaire heiress (Megan Ellison) who enjoys blowing millions of dollars — earned by her father selling software to corporate America — producing cinematic indictments of the same country, everyone motivated chiefly by the exciting prospect of receiving hosannas from the bourgeois revolutionaries cheering on every act of supposed cultural subversion from their desks at the New York Times. The story of the making of Sorry to Bother You would be loony fun, and it would have the added virtue of reflecting what’s actually going on among our cultural swells today rather than belaboring ancient jokes about how every white guy sounds like Young Sheldon being given a cosmic wedgie.
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