Movies 11 October 2018 | 16:42

LFF review: ‘Sorry to Bother You’ is a masterwork

11 October 2018 16:42

I haven’t seen many comedies as sobering as Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. Maybe The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940). Maybe Four Lions (Chris Morris, 2010). But that’s about it.

It starts off, if I can drop another film title, much like Office Space (Mike Judge, 1999): a satire of dumb corporate America. Lakeith Stanfield’s character may have a name – Cassius ‘Cash’ Green – that reeks of money, but he doesn’t have the bank account to match. So he takes a job in a telemarketing firm that abides by a single rule: ‘Stick to the script.’ It’s all cubicles and broken photocopiers and motivational staff meetings and high-fives following yet another successful sale.

But just as you start to fear that Sorry to Bother You is also following the script, it starts to tighten the more flaccid elements of its satire – and traps Cash in the process. Donald Glover’s old-timer explains to him that, if he really wants to be successful, then he has to adopt a ‘white person’ voice over the phone. Hearing Glover and Stanfield switch between their normal voices and a sort of polo-shirted, golf-weekend alternative is extremely funny, but it’s also a terrifying echo of Stanfield’s role in Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017). It only gets worse when Cash is promoted to the top-floor office – reached via a gold elevator, natch – and has to stick to his ‘white’ voice all the time.

Cash could choose not to demean himself like this. He could choose not to cross the picket line half-way through the movie. He could choose not to go against the wishes of his artist girlfriend Detroit, played so brilliantly by Tessa Thompson. Or could he?

The case becomes more difficult when you hear Detroit – who is, for the most part, the film’s revolutionary conscience – adopting her own ‘white person’ voice while chatting to the fancy folk at an exhibition of her paintings. You do wonder whether Boots Riley is speaking through her: we’ve all had to do this sometimes, just to get by.

And so the trap keeps on digging its serrations into Cash’s flesh. The moment of his greatest triumph, in a corporate sense, is also the moment of his total debasement. At a party hosted by the business titan Steve Lift (Armie Hammer as one of the Winklevoss Twins again, but with a more liberal attitude towards drugs, guns and beaded necklaces), the crowd urges Cash to ‘Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap!’ What follows is the most intentionally excruciating scene I’ve seen for a long time. Full horror.

If this makes Sorry to Bother You sound like a film to endure, then rest assured: it is also a film to enjoy. I’ve simply concentrated on the things that have really stuck with me since the LFF screening this afternoon, but I could also have mentioned its candy colours, Detroit’s earrings, or the – how to say this? – horse penises that feature – again, how to say this? – prominently in the final act. It is a masterwork of finely-tuned madness.

It is also Boots Riley’s first feature film. He should make more.