Chances are you had never heard of the name Boots Riley before this year. For the last several years, he has been working pretty steadily as an actor and musician, writing pieces for such big projects as “The Simpsons,” “Superbad,” and “The Losers.” This year he has taken the bold leap to writing and directing his first feature film, entitled “Sorry to Bother You,” a very imaginative work that has already garnered him a fair amount of acclaim, but as always it must be asked if the buzz is justified or if it’s just another case of misplaced praise thrown at a project that doesn’t quite live up to the hype. As usual, let’s hope for the best as we take a closer look at Riley’s bizarre concoction.
As the film opens, we meet Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), who is struggling to get a job to pay his Uncle back rent for living in his garage. Despite lying multiple times on his resume, and making up fake achievements, he is given a job at a telemarketing service known as RegalView. After a co-worker gives him a little advice about using a “white voice” to help with his sales, he quickly finds his job performance improving, so much so that he is promoted to what is known as a “power caller.” This gives him a job upstairs that has him selling something completely different than before: slave labor. However, he soon discovers that RegalView’s plans go further than that, and that their deepest, darkest secret is one that he never could have possibly imagined. With this knowledge, and a very lucrative offer on the table, Cassius must decide whether to go through with the horrifying deal or expose the company for their unethical practices.
“Sorry to Bother You” starts off pretty well as it attempts to tell the story of one man’s struggle to make his way in the world so that he and his girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) can be happy together in their own place. It even ups the ante as it introduces a unionizer, Squeeze (Steven Yeun), who is trying to get better pay for the multitude of telemarketers at RegalView, which is happening at the same time Cassius is promoted. However, about halfway through this intriguing situation, the film takes a radical shift into the land of fantasy that is not only somewhat jarring, but also rather unnecessary.
Without going into any spoilery details, Cassius discovers what’s really going on behind the scenes at RegalView, and let’s just say that it’s something that’s really out there. The strange thing is, the film was already doing a decent job of being an intriguing commentary on the perception of one of the most annoying business practices out there: Telemarketing. This begs the question of why Riley felt the need to divert it into something that goes way off the rails and subsequently drags the story down with it into far less compelling territory.
At the very least, you certainly have to applaud his creative imagination. I don’t think you’d find a single person that can confidently say that they could see where the story was going, and there is definitely some imagery in here that you won’t forget for at least a few days, but it’s still quite unusual to have to say that the half of the film with Riley’s ambitious spirit on full display is less alluring than the half that is a little more down to Earth (though certainly not without its odd and humorous elements). It really just makes you wish that he had finished the narrative along the same lines, instead of detouring into a weird and wacky fantasy land.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing else to enjoy about the film. Aside from a pretty good first half, you get an excellent cast that includes Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Omari Hardwick, Steven Yeun, Danny Glover, and Armie Hammer (who is to be particularly commended for delivering a pretty silly explanation with a straight face). Everyone is wonderfully committed to their part, and they’re a delight to watch, which does help partially when navigating through the bizarre events of the second half, though they can only do so much to get the film through the weaker parts of Riley’s script.
Ultimately, it’s not a bad film, though it does have a number of flaws that prevent it from being as effective as it wants to be. As mentioned, it’s certainly an intriguing attempt at a first film, filled with some bizarre and creative ideas, but they really needed to be thought through a little more so that the narrative doesn’t feel like it just kind of collapses in the latter portion. With this under his belt, it would be great to see Boots Riley try again. He’s shown that he has some great and fascinating ideas, and another feature might just be the one to bring them together and show the world how great his talents are.
“Sorry to Bother You” comes to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. There is a slight dullness to the picture ever now and again, particularly in darker scenes, but for the most part, the image is perfectly sharp and clear. Likewise, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is fantastic, giving you the dialogue and soundtrack in outstanding quality. Overall, the film has been given pretty good treatment, leaving you with a great experience in both departments.
Commentary with Writer/Director Boots Riley: A decent feature commentary that has Riley giving you lots of background information about the making of the film.
Beautiful Clutter with Director Boots Riley (12 Minutes): An interesting featurette that goes behind the scenes of the film through interviews with Boots Riley.
Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” contains an excellent cast and a narrative that presents some fascinating ideas, but it’s ultimately undone by a wild shift into fantasy in the second half that unfortunately makes for an unsatisfying experience overall. He’s certainly shown that he has quite the imagination, and it would be great to see him try again with another feature, though hopefully next time he’ll put a little more time into developing his ideas so that it makes for an intriguing and cohesive whole.