Sundance Standout is a Satire for the Modern Age
DIRECTOR: BOOTS RILEY/2018
What’s that Jonathan Swift piece about eating babies?
Oh, I know you know the one—something about how we don’t have enough food, so we should all resort to eating our plump, juicy children? C’mon, we all had to read it in English class!
Ah, yes, a Google search for “jonathan swift eating babies” reminds me of the title. “A Modest Proposal,” his 1729 essay, provided a solution to such problems plaguing Europe at the time as overpopulation, food shortages, and poverty: Why don’t we just eat our children once they celebrate their first birthday? For, as he argues, “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.”
Like Swift, filmmaker Boots Riley is out to make a point, though not the one he’s spelling in words. Swift was criticizing the failure of England and Ireland’s institutions to resolve their people’s crises, and Riley has a message about our commercial culture.
Sorry to Bother You tells its parable through the eyes of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), who is living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage in a parallel version of today’s Oakland, California. He aches for a life that makes a difference, but he can only afford to focus on his bills right now, so he takes a job as a telemarketer. When veteran caller Langston (Danny Glover) tips him off that he’ll make more money if he uses a “white voice” to make his sales pitches, Cassius begins speaking in tones curiously similar to David Cross’s, and soon his he’s promoted to Power Caller. Once in the upstairs world, he can afford to trade in his beat-up ride and move into a real apartment with his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). But he’s also trading in his moral compass, selling shady stuff to shady corporations, including the Steve Lift-led (Armie Hammer) WorryFree, which promises a lifetime of room and board to the financially challenged in exchange for work.
Riley’s storytelling may be surrealist and satirist, but he’s poking at the pulse of our Bread and Circuses culture.
I didn’t find this quasi-California disturbing because of how outrageous Cassius’s descent into this world becomes—I found it disturbing because it wasn’t too removed from our real one. The population’s addiction to literally mind-numbing reality TV, companies’ addiction to efficiency, and everyone’s general addiction to more, more, more doesn’t feel foreign at all. Riley’s storytelling may be surrealist and satirist, but he’s poking at the pulse of our Bread and Circuses culture.
Another overlap this film shares with Swift’s essay: It can only be funny for so long. You might start Swift’s “Modest Proposal” (a title almost as bashful and apologetic as Sorry to Bother You) chuckling, but when you’re 3000 words into it and he’s laying out his calculations and the practical benefits of his program, the grotesque outweighs the ironic. Those white voice cameos from Cross, Patton Oswalt, and Lily James start making you squirm, and the other absurdist elements take on a new shock value. After I watched this film, I took a shower, as if trying to wash the ick out of my mind. I spent the rest of the evening detoxing with a puzzle, hoping that the order of connecting jigsaw pieces would help me make sense of the twisted fable I didn’t want to believe could be so plausible. (Hopefully this is not my version of Bread and Circuses.)
That’s not to say Sorry to Bother You is flawless. Our writer Paul Hibbard named it his #2 film of the year, saying, “It feels like rapper-turned-director Boots Riley had one shot and threw everything he believed in into the same film, and it explodes in one of the best movies of the year.” While I agree the whole works, that much to say means not all ideas find the same depth or focus. I also hold reservations about the amount of nudity in this story. Yes, I know I’m on the conservative end of the spectrum when it comes to sex in movies, but the objectification came from the camera as often as the evil corporate characters. Doesn’t this undercut the warnings about how we’re commercializing people and their bodies for the sake of greed? I chose to skip ahead several times rather than try to separate the real from the fake in those scenes.
It’s a shame only because Sorry to Bother You knocks it out of the park in so many other areas, including the power of art and protest to change society. The film also speaks to topics I’m not hearing about anywhere else on screen. That’s the highest achievement for a Sundance selection because that festival is one of the best outlets we have for finding voices with more to offer than our regular studio fare.
How much will we sell out for? It’s a question I’ve been thinking about since this movie, and I can’t say any other 2018 film made me consider it so much.