In 2014 one of my favorite literary journals, McSweeny’s, published a full length screenplay by Boots Riley for Sorry to Bother You — and it was an utterly fantastic read. Sorry featured an edgy punk-styled attitude and delved into everything from racism to the challenge of keeping one’s identity within a monolithic corporate culture. It was almost too good to be true and after reading it my first thought was – Who would step forward to actually make it?
Now, just four years later, producer Charles King (who brought Mudbound to Sundance last year) returns with Sorry to Bother You which Riley wound up making his directorial debut. There are so many socially conscious films at Sundance, that at first the crowd wasn’t sure whether or not they were truly allowed to laugh at the often surreal humor in the film, but it became quite apparent soon enough that Riley was indeed holding up a warped mirror to many of today’s problems and that laughter was not only intended – but welcomed. The true trick both for his script and its execution was lied in keeping balance between drama and comedy and Riley the writer certainly gave Riley the director quite a challenge by penning so much surreal comedy, a sub-genere not all audiences were immediately prepared for.
As a director, Riley clearly must be a Michel Gondry fan as he at times seemed to capture that analog styled visual sensibility for his own quirky tale. Lakeith Stanfield easily carries the film as Cassius Green and Thor: Ragnorak’s Tessa Thompson always manages to bring Stanfield back down to earth as his girlfriend Detroit. Armie Hammer’s cheesy and creepy boss, Steve Lift (a Steve Jobs styled innovator) became a great foil to Cassius in the film, but what’s so interesting about Sorry is that the true antagonist is Cassius himself as he fights to find his place in the world by diving head first into an existential identity crisis.
A Spoiler (Skip this paragraph if you don’t want any spoilers):
The concept of an African American needing to use a “white voice” in order to achieve better sales as a spam caller was inspired on the page but takes on an amazing life on the screen when actors David Cross and Patton Oswalt have only their “white” voices seamlessly lip synched into dialogue heavy scenes played by African American men. It’s so laugh out loud funny that at times it was hard to hear all the jokes – which is a great problem to have.
END Spoiler Section
The third act of Sorry is so beautifully over the top that you can’t look away and that in and of itself is such a rarity to see in a film that it deserves proper kudos for never diluting its idiosyncratic voice. Riley takes the concept of identity crisis to new levels as we see our protagonist literally transform before our eyes in a completely surreal and silly way, while at the same time, laughs aside, Riley delivers a smart political statement. Audiences were somewhat divided as the film discards mainstream comedy conventions to continue on its surrealist comedy path, which overwhelmingly works, even though some in the room craved a more traditional conclusion.
The buzz in the Eccles theater was electric and it’s hoped the film finds a distributor. As for awards potential, this seems like a front runner for Sundance’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and possibly even awards season Best Original screenwriting nominations as well. Don’t miss this uniquely hilarious film when it comes to a theater near you!
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Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a 30-something black telemarketer with self-esteem issues, discovers a magical selling power living inside of him. Suddenly he’s rising up the ranks to the elite team of his company, which sells heinous products and services. The upswing in Cassius’s career raises serious red flags with his brilliant girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a sign-twirling gallery artist who is secretly a part of a Banksy-style collective called Left Eye. But the unimaginable hits the fan when Cassius meets the company’s cocaine-snorting, orgy-hosting, obnoxious, and relentlessly optimistic CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).
Bursting with wit and originality, writer/director Boots Riley pulls no punches in this immensely intelligent comedy about overcoming your perception of your own powers of persuasion. With pitch-perfect performances by a stellar cast, a super funky soundtrack (which Riley contributes to), plus a score by Tune-Yards, Sorry to Bother You is a sparkling debut feature that surfs a macabre universe with a disturbing likeness to our own.
Boots Riley was born on April Fools’ Day, but he is no damn fool. His drink of choice is bourbon, but he’s thinking about switching to mezcal because he heard it’s healthier. He studied film at San Francisco State University before ending his studies in favor of a major-label recording deal for his band, The Coup. Riley was raised—and still lives—in Oakland, California. Sorry To Bother You is his directorial debut.
Cast & Credits
Director: Boots Riley
Screenwriter: Boots Riley
Producers: Nina Yang Bongiovi / Forest Whitaker / Charles King / George Rush / Jonathan Duffy / Kelly Williams
Executive Producers: Michael Y. Chow / Michael K. Shen / Kim Roth / Poppy Hanks / Phillip Engelhorn / Caroline Kaplan / Gus Deardoff
Director of Photography: Doug Emmett
Editor: Terel Gibson
Principal Cast: Lakeith Stanfield / Tessa Thompson / Steven Yeun / Jermaine Fowler / Armie Hammer / Omari Hardwick