Sorry to Bother You (Film)
Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You (2018)

I see an awful lot of movies, and I very seldom get to experience the exhilaration of watching a new filmmaker who has so much talent that it just explodes from within him.

For nearly three decades, Raymond Lawrence “Boots” Riley has been a well-connected hip-hop artist, teacher and aggressive political activist in Oakland, California. In his first venture into feature movie-making, Riley has so much that he’s desperate to say--and such a frenzied way of saying anything and everything--that I had a hard time keeping up with him. He had me at the start, lost me for a while, reeled me back in, lost me again and finished with his hands around my throat.

With a gift for placing large groups of people in tight communities and work settings, Riley is able to do so without his characters losing their individuality. Even more impressively, these individuals, who are regularly channeling comedy and drama simultaneously don’t sound like they’re the products of a writers’ room. The emotions of telemarketers, street people, power-players, lovers, and epic villains all feel achingly genuine. That’s a pretty impressive feat.

Riley has a great deal to work with here, not the least of which is a stellar cast. LaKeith Stanfield in the lead carries this film through some of the most treacherous territory in recent memory. You might remember Stanfield as the country-club milquetoast who appears to be inhabiting a young black dude’s body in Get Out! where he’s Daniel Kaluuya’s first clue that there’s something very very wrong with the idyllic southern community. In Sorry to Bother You, Stanfield’s character alternates serving as the hero, villain, comic relief, romantic lead, victim, and a half-dozen other personas and he takes every one them to the brink of theatrical disaster.

While Stanfield dominates the storyline, he has plenty of help. Tessa Thompson as the primary love interest matches Stanfield’s bizarre vibe in scene after scene and Armie Hammer personifies the evil that can spring from cluelessness. Tell me that isn’t a timely plot point.  

Brooklyn Nine-Nine fans will get a kick out Terry Crews’ brief but poignant appearance, and how much fun is it to watch a long-suffering Danny Glover thirty-one years after he first lamented “I’m getting too old for this shit!”?  Add Steven Yeun, Rosario Dawson, and about a dozen more real pros and there aren’t many throwaway scenes in this flick.

One thing we have to get absolutely clear right now is that Boots Riley’s movie is in no way riding Jordan Peele’s coattails. While there are a few similarities in the social commentary,  Sorry to Bother You debuted at Sundance in January 2018. Production on the film had to have been essentially completed well before Get Out! became a cultural phenomena. Similarities in the concepts are far more likely to have arisen from the way in which talented, creative, socially aware Black men may have come to view the American culture today than from any perceived plagiarism.

The similarities we’re talking about are the whiplash lurching from genre to genre from one scene to another that occur in both movies. Sorry to Bother You is a very funny film with more than a few hilarious one-liners.  It’s also terrifying, heartbreaking and very scary. There’s anger in the social commentary, occasional resignation and a defiant sense of humor.

The one great divergence in these two movies is the plunge into sci-fi Sorry takes in its final scenes.  While Get Out! explores science fiction, Sorry takes the genre to a place where I’m pretty sure it’s never gone before.  I’d love to explain, but that would necessitate employing the spoiler of all time. Maybe we can get together in a year or so, have a picnic, ride some horses, play some touch football and see if we can figure out just what the hell is going on in Boots Riley’s head.

*A Note from Ed Johnson-Ott: Long time readers may have noticed that I’ve been absent from these pages for a considerable time while I’ve been relearning some basic skills due to a rather nasty collision between my Parkinson’s Disease and the medication I’ve been taking to protect me from it.  

I knew that because of the tremors Parkinson’s causes I’d never be able type again.  I feared that I might not be able to write reviews at all due to my difficulty in assembling my thoughts in a coherent order.  Then Dale Ogden, my cherished friend of nearly forty years, volunteered to collaborate on the essays and to type up the final copy. Dale’s an accomplished writer in his own right, and this essay marks our second effort together.  

We’re having a great time.  With his help, these pages will be better than ever and are my way of thanking NUVO for their unfailing support.

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Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.