The angry and confrontational nature of Sorry to Bother You is its best feature, there’s no question about it. The anti-capitalist, pro-labour mindset being espoused is not filtered or watered down, and Riley’s absurdist touches help make it stick in memorable ways. I mean, yes, the twisted climax is one of them, but the idea of a “white voice” being the greatest asset for a POC worker? The idea that scrubbing one’s identity so thoroughly of what others perceive to be disagreeable markers helps them climb the ladder of success, all the way to a big fat paycheck? These details still matter. Riley is cognizant of a lot more than corporate corruption, and how cycles of exploitation in the labour market are already spiraling out of control. He’s got his eye on those who have historically been disenfranchised, and who now stand to lose even more as they get swallowed up in the capitalist machine. The African-American perspective that runs so powerfully through this work is the essential component that gives it its battle cry. Norma Rae gets its shoutout, but that was then. Sorry to Bother You and the saga of Cassius Green is our now.
Riley does encounter a lot of hiccups along the way—understandably, as this is his first film. He lacks a true feel for crisp momentum, for instance, which leads to a decompression within the action by the 45-minute mark. When Cassius gets his big promotion, while his fellow coworkers rally for their rights, Riley puts the gear in neutral because Cassius isn’t inclined to do some soul-searching regarding his new position. It takes quite a while before he realizes what he’s gotten himself into, and in that interregnum, Riley can only prolong familiar imagery: picket lines, TV screens, and more of Lakeith Stanfield’s jitteriness (man, does this guy give a jittery performance). Interest undoubtedly perks up when Armie Hammer and his Dastardly Plan come into the picture, for which I can give Riley credit. On the other hand, he does cop out by resolving this wacky turn into the unexpected in a most expected way, negating some of its originality. Like others before me have said, Riley has a variety of great ideas that aren’t executed in the most proficient ways, and as you stack them one on top of the other, you realize it might have gone down better had he found room for refinement.
As it lacks that refinement, Sorry to Bother You is not going age as well as, say, Get Out, which feels like it could share the same universe. That shouldn’t discourage Riley from making more films, however. He has the passion and dissatisfaction needed to take activist filmmaking to exciting new corners, and I hope he does. Sorry to Bother You is merely the appetizer in what could be a grand feast in its own right.