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In ‘Sorry to Bother You,’ laughter is revolutionary

| Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Ruby Le

As a Marxist philosopher who fled Nazi Germany, Theodor Adorno was understandably a rather dour guy. He declared films as “neither guides for a blissful life, nor a new art of moral responsibility, but rather exhortations to toe the line, behind which stand the most powerful interests,” and he reserved specific disregard for contemporary comedian Charlie Chaplin. “The idea that a reactionary individual can be transformed into a member of the avant-garde through an intimate acquaintance with the films of Chaplin, strikes me as simple romanticization,” he wrote. “I cannot believe that the valuable elements in [Chaplin’s film “Modern Times”] will attract the slightest attention anyway. You need only have heard the laughter of the audience at the screening of this film to realize what is going on.”

If anything proves Adorno wrong, it is Boots Riley’s bonkers, explicitly revolutionary firecracker of a film, “Sorry to Bother You.”

Here are the basics: Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lives day to day, scraping by with an underpaid telemarketing gig. His girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) contributes to her outrageous experimental art, and his landlord/uncle (Terry Crews) demands some rent. Then, a kind co-worker (Danny Glover) explains how Cassius can access his “white voice.” Cassius rockets up the corporate ladder, through the glitz and extravagance to the office of Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), leaving his friends, including a labor organizer (Steven Yeun), behind.

This premise might make “Sorry to Bother You” sound formulaic, a rote rags-to-riches story tossed with tragedy and spiced by some clever code-switching. But Riley has far grander goals. His is unapologetic filmmaking, functioning on operatic levels of craft and skill. The whole film thrums with unexpected arcs of energy. His camera whip-pans, dolly-zooms and glides. No smooth edges, only rough sketches. His world is heightened, his characters archetypes, his plot ludicrous. And his target is capitalism, industrialization and complacency.

This is the real revolutionary art of “Sorry to Bother You.” Capitalism is so ingrained in American culture that few question its efficacy. Riley cobbles together only a slightly exaggerated version of late-stage capitalism: “WorryFree,” a service guaranteeing exhausted laborers food and housing in exchange for lifelong work contracts. “Sorry to Bother You” beats you to your own realization; “This is basically slavery,” I thought about three seconds after a character said it. And WorryFree’s agenda is more sinister than even that, as an absurdly ambitious twist demonstrates. I am not sure the shift works on a pure plot level. As allegory, it is perfect.

Yet perhaps that is what holds “Sorry to Bother You” back: plot and character. Stanfield delivers an awe-inspiring performance that pivots from glee to frustration to horror, but everyone else is stuck in simple characterizations. Hammer nevertheless manages to entertain, but Thompson, so good in “Creed” and “Dear White People,” flounders. A few narrative detours feel superfluous or gratuitous. Tonally, the film remains consistently loopy and surrealistic until the finale, when it shifts decisively into tragedy and action. The final scene makes neither thematic nor dramatic sense, seemingly included for its own slight pleasures.

Ultimately, however, “Sorry to Bother You” overcomes these flaws. Riley creates a surrealistic, heightened world to critique our own and the systems that govern our lives. It is a ruthlessly unsparing portrait of corporate greed run amuck, of citizens complacent enough to accept it and of the tremendous courage required to stand up for human dignity. Only an absurdist film like this could aim so clearly and correctly at the invisible structural inequalities of American society. A documentary would be too much to take.

And the laughter in “Sorry to Bother You” is directed squarely at these institutions, at the utter unfairness of these systems. We laugh when these characters strive and fail, not because we pity them but because we recognize them. The laughter foregrounds the humor and sickness yet makes the film just palatable enough to continue watching. In “Sorry to Bother You,” laughter is a revolutionary act because it means you see the systems for what they are. More importantly, it means you’re still alive.

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