I had heard about SORRY TO BOTHER YOU before the trailer had even come out. Steven Yuen and Tessa Thompson? Together?! It was already enough that Tessa would be starring opposite Lily James in the female-directed feature LITTLE WOODS. Not to mention, I’m always biased towards directorial debuts, especially for writer-directors. For Boots Riley, an independent rapper from Oakland, being underestimated is an institution. As a writer-director, the sentiment rings out tenfold. To quote Mr. Riley from his interview with the New York Times, “Trying to get somebody to read your script and you’re a musician?” he asked. “That’s the last person whose script you’re gonna read!” However, being overlooked only boosts the intelligence, humor, and meticulous attention to detail of SORRY TO BOTHER YOU.
The tricky thing with absurdist humor is that it inevitably becomes a lynchpin for the entire tone of the film. There’s absolutely nothing worse than an absurdist film that takes itself too seriously. Such is the case with Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL, the story of a young man in a dystopian universe who is in hot pursuit of the woman who floods his idealized fantasies. The contradictory film employs jokes about necrophilia, a face turned to silly putty after surgery, and a dictator-led bureaucracy that is dripping with idiocy. But all throughout the faltering film, the audience doesn’t know how to root or care for the protagonist, and the world he lives in seems to flip-flop between posing a potential threat and not.
SWISS ARMY MAN, the chronicle of a young man rediscovering a vitality for life, stranded on a deserted island, with a perpetually farting corpse, personifies very well done absurdism. From Paul Dano riding the corpse’s gas-like gasoline and using him as a vessel to get home, or finding out the navigation powers of the corpse’s erection, SWISS ARMY MAN never takes itself too seriously. As the film only increases in terms of its own ludicrousness, so does the appeal for the characters, the story, and the immersive nature of the plot.
Why did the girl’s name have to be Jessie?
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is not anything like SWISS ARMY MAN or BRAZIL. Which in no way means the film is not successful, quite the opposite actually. The story is that of a man named Cassius “Cash” Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, who receives an invaluable “IN” in the telemarketing industry when he discovers the magical capabilities of his white voice. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU’s absurdism comes in the form of actual white actors’ voices lipsynced to Tessa Thompson, Lakeith Stanfield, and Omari Hardwick’s characters. It is also done in smaller ways, like an ever-changing inspirational photograph and a lavish party that rivals EYES WIDE SHUT in its sex-capades.
In SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, the absurdist humor has a very clear purpose: namely to exemplify the absurd reality we already live in. Riley reveals his critique of the absurdity of capitalism, treatment of black individuals, and exploitation of art experienced in Oakland, but also in America as a whole, by spinning a story teeming with the unimaginably bizarre. In a way, by embodying absolute absurdity, the hair-pulling frustration of the present political and societal climate becomes unavoidably transparent. The audience is able to normalize the radical views being portrayed on screen because living in a world like this, one has no other choice.
Tag yourself, I’m the green guitar
It would be an all-out crime to not take note of the beautiful editing work that completely fuels the magical realism associated with SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. Quick cuts, objects and characters with very little permanence, and a sex scene that tangibly depicts character and location change, are all brilliant tenants to a world that feels surreal and distant, but is in fact not unlike our own. Unfortunately, the pacing of the film does come with inconsistencies, and the inclusion of body horror may put audiences off altogether.
Boots Riley takes a stand in SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. He implores magical realist-driven editing, absurdist humor, and beautiful subtlety in his writing. In making art, especially one rooted in dark absurdism, the artist decides the subtlety or clarity of the claims they are making. Boots Riley makes direct comments about white individuals’ fetishistic tendencies to rap and say the N-word and the rampant nature of classism. However, he also cleverly explores smaller concepts like when artists, like Tessa Thompson’s character Detroit, perpetuate gentrification through art. Or even the praise and exploitation of black torment, when Cassius gets injured by a Coke can thrown at his head and the white women who threw it creates a consumerist profit off of it. I can’t speak for all, but SORRY TO BOTHER YOU left me reeling, a little more afraid of horses, and completely floored by its complexity.