What a great title. Sorry To Bother You is, indeed, bothersome. Quite deliberately. And it’s not really sorry about it. The conceit revealed in the film’s trailer—a black telemarketer uses his “white voice” to achieve success at work—is but one of the film’s many surreal elements, a kind of hint of things to come. I’m not going to spoil anything for you though. The shock of each twist is the source of the film’s cathartic effect.
Sorry To Bother You isn’t a revelation. It’s a release valve. The societal ills skewered here are well-cataloged elsewhere. Sorry To Bother You simply cranks them up to absurd levels and enables us to pelt them with metaphorical tomatoes, or, to borrow from the film itself, water balloons filled with sheep’s blood. It’s Saturnalia, The Feast of Fools, Carnival, Mardi Gras. It’s Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of being turned into an animal in Daniel 4. It welcomes your reaction. Your response is part of the art of the act.
The energy of the film is angry, but it is, after all, Juvenalian Satire in general, and, with respect to the individual characters in the story, Menippean Satire, so the judgement is real. It’s disturbing by design, so we can hoot and holler at it instead of resorting to violent revolution in the real world. “It’s serious,” one character in the film says to another who wants to bring weapons to a protest, “but it’s not that serious.”
The film stars three of the most interesting young actors working today – Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, and Armie Hammer. Any film any of these three make is worth watching. They all tend to choose films with weight, or, particularly in Tessa Thompson’s case, they bring substance to otherwise cotton candy films. The chance to watch these actors interact with each other is worth the price of admission to see Sorry To Bother You alone.
Both Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson have an intense energy. Stanfield turns it internal. It contracts his body as if his heart is extra dense and is collapsing his slight frame. He bows in on himself. There’s a cosmos behind his eyes that you can be sucked into. In contrast, Thompson’s energy is external. Brow first, she presses on the world around her. She’s like Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone Western – the room changes when she walks into it. She has presence. And again, like with Stanfield, it’s concentrated in her eyes.
Look away, lest they burn you with holy fire.
In Sorry To Bother You, Stanfield and Thompson play lovers who value the same things but react to the world in opposite ways. In tension with each other, caught in each other’s gravity, they tumble dynamically, bolas-like through the narrative space. There’s a brief time in the story when their characters are apart. It’s a mournful moment in an otherwise absurd film. Their separation robs the universe of a matched pair of titans. The tension they represent is also inherent to the Black identity in American society. They need each other even when they are at odds, and we need them both too if our society is ever to be made whole.
Armie Hammer is beginning to make a career out of using his ideal handsome white dude-ness to skewer what we think of as the ideal (white) man. In The Social Network, J. Edgar, The Lone Ranger, The Birth of a Nation, Call Me By Your Name, and now, Sorry To Bother You, Hammer embodies “the man,” and lets the rug be pulled out from under the stereotype. He reveals the emptiness of the traditional masculine aspiration. What an admirable way to use your good looks, your privilege. Good for you, Armie. Thank you.
Sorry To Bother You won’t be for everybody. It shouldn’t be for anybody, because the societal ills it lampoons shouldn’t exist. But they do, and if we’re going to continue to faithfully fix them, we’re going to need a few Feasts of Fools to relive the tension every once and a while. Carnival may be absurd, but the alternative is anarchy.