As any athlete or sports fan will tell you, starting off a season on a lengthy winning streak is the type of rarity that you have to relish every moment of. Piling up a long strong of wins right out of the gate makes you feel invincible, fortunate and confident to the point where you almost begin to forget what losing feels like. However, no matter how good things seem to be going during a hot streak, you know in the back of your mind that perfection isn't sustainable over the course of a long season. It took roughly 6 months and 40 films to happen, but my unlikely, dud-free 2018 moviewatching run has finally come to a halt. Sorry to Bother You, the debut film from rapper/activist Boots Riley, is an inept, colossally messy satire that fails to deliver any effective social commentary or substantial laughs.
I'll give Riley credit for one thing: I've truly never seen anything like Sorry to Bother You. The story of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield-whose reliably magnetic presence prevents this from cratering even further down the quality ladder), a young man that gets exposed to the dark, bizarre underbelly of corporate America after he quickly rises up the hierarchy at a telemarketing company gets more and more insane as it goes along. By the time it reaches its surrealist conclusion, it's kind of unbelievable to think that the bonkers events that transpired over the course of this film were set in motion by an act as mundane as a laid-back dude from Oakland taking a deadend job to make ends meet. That being said, no amount of unexpected, quirky plot developments in the world could possibly make up for the staggering lack of focus that Riley displays here.
If Jackson Pollock transitioned his mindlessly throw shit on the canvas approach to the world of writing about the issues that plague modern society in the United States, he would be Riley. This script seems like it was concocted by an individual that had one too many tabs of acid at Burning Man and now believes they've uncovered all of the skeletons in America's closest. Riley references hot-button issues (Capitalism! Corporate Greed! Cultural Appropriation! Violence in Pop Culture!) at such a rapid clip that whatever messages he's trying to convey becomes completely incomprehensible in no time at all. After about 35-40 minutes of watching this aimless combination of half-baked social commentary and weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird bullshit play out, I knew that I was going to passionately despise Sorry to Bother You.
Riley's inability to coherently convey a message is only outdone by his inability to craft comedy. He was so preoccupied with jamming 62,000,000 references to socioeconomic problems into 105 minutes of screentime that the jokes end up feeling like an afterthought. Just about every gag is too straightfaced to fit the absurdist tone the film is trying to achieve and the few that are actually inane ("The White Voice", the popular game show in which Cassius eventually appears on, the soda can-throwing protestor) are ran into the ground with such ferocity that it nullifies whatever minimal effectiveness they had initially.
Sorry to Bother You's comedic missteps become even more unforgivable once you consider who was in front of the camera. Stanfield, Danny Glover, Terry Crews and basically everyone else in this cast is a naturally funny performer, but even they can't make 99% of these lazy, horrifically-timed jokes pop. Failing to register consistent laughs with that level of talent at your disposal flat-out shouldn't happen in this or any other universe that's inhabited by intelligent lifeforms. Yuck-averse Boots is going to have to attend a workshop or some shit before he tries his hand at comedy writing again because this shit was just embarrassing and painful to watch.
If nothing else, I'm glad that 2018's clean slate was broken up by a stinker of this magnitude. As unpleasant as they are to sit through, I find that films that evoke a strong sense of contempt within you are a useful tool for managing expectations and shaping how you look at the artform moving forward. Hopefully Sorry to Bother You serves as only a brief detour to Shitsville and not the start of a second-half downturn at the good ol' cinema.