If I were to paint you a picture of the typical summer blockbuster, it would look a lot like Skyscraper, a film in which Dwayne ActionRock unironically uses duct tape to adhere himself to the windows of the tallest building in the world as he sidles along the exterior of one of the upper floors. It would likely resemble Ant-Man and the Wasp, a film in which a man is threatened by a tardigrade, or Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, a film that prominently features a laser-activated super-dinosaur.
What I would most certainly not expect that picture to bear any resemblance to, is Sorry to Bother You, a tripped out dystopian comedy that intends to analyze the way that race, social class, capitalism, civil resistance, and exploitation are related, and also has giant horse phalluses. What’s even less believable than the fact that this film was sent into wide release on the same weekend as Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, is that they exist inside of the same building. How did this happen? What bizarre force of nature conspired to align these particular stars in this unholy configuration?
Despite the fact that this is an event on par with Blumhouse dumping Get Out into a February release window like it was The Cloverfield Paradox, it did present me with an opportunity. On what other occasion would I be afforded a chance to watch a biting satire dripping with symbolism and a Rock-studded ripoff of Die Hard within the same 48 hours? Fearing that the answer to that puzzling query would be, of course,“Never,” I decided to make metaphorical hay while the sun shone.
Sorry to Bother You – Rating: 8.75/10
If Sorry to Bother You wasn’t the result of a passionate political debate paired with a profoundly shocking amount of drugs, I would be astonished. It’s difficult to find a jumping off point for a discussion with this film because there is just so much going on. Should I begin with the perfect casting of the leads? The brilliant sound design? The surreal elements that pop out of nowhere and punch you in the gut? The insightful deconstruction of modern society? The razor-sharp screenplay? How about the fact that Boots Riley, the writer, director, and frontman of the band responsible for the soundtrack, has never directed a movie before?
In a fictionalized rendition of Oakland, CA, things aren’t looking particularly bright for Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield). He’s broke, and living in the garage of his similarly destitute uncle with his fiancé Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Things begin to look up when his buddy helps him land a job as a telemarketer, but he soon finds himself struggling to make sales. It is at this point that a coworker (Danny Glover, fully recovered from his latest Ambien debacle) suggests that he use his “white voice” when making cold-calls. As soon as he utilizes this technique, he becomes a rockstar; the company’s top seller and most valued employee.
It’s a relatively simple, if quirky, premise, but both the story and the presentation elevate the concept to a pretty staggering altitude. The best way I can think of to describe the aesthetic and tone of Sorry to Bother You is as a combination of different elements from Her, Atlanta, and even Synecdoche New York. Several of the best moments are mined from figuring out exactly what state the world is in, and I’d hate to spoil the fun, but I will say that there are few films capable of outpacing Sorry to Bother You’s ability to frame surreal, borderline insane images in a way that feels steady and pragmatic.
One such instance also happens to be one of the most unconventional but impactful elements of the production. Whenever a character switches to their “white voice,” that voice is very clearly dubbed in, and completely disembodied. It’s strange enough hearing David Cross’ bright, obsessively articulate voice replacing Cash’s bassy mumble, but it becomes even more so when you realize that no effort was made to make it appear as though the actor is actually saying these words. There are obvious moments where the voice and mouth don’t match up, the “white voice” sounds sterile and seems unaffected by any room-tone, and it feels more like narration than dialogue.
This has a number of implications, both for the audience and the film’s messaging. For the audience, it means that you’re never entirely sure which character is talking unless you look at their mouths or get fully used to the different timbres of David Cross and Patton Oswalt. Symbolically, though, the effect goes much deeper than setting the audience on edge.
To begin with, it’s impossible to ignore the obvious racial connotations at play. Cassius only becomes successful when he emulates the representation of a white man, implying that in order to be a successful, accepted person of color, the world wants him to lose a part of his identity. Moreover, when he becomes a “Power Caller” (the elite telemarketers who work on the top floor and make unconscionable amounts of money), his success and affluence are instant. This speaks not only to the fact that it seems like people are either struggling by paycheck to paycheck or throwing extravagant cocaine parties in their mansions, but also to the idea that in order to become successful, you need to become a person who is successful.
This is a riff on the idea that perspective, determination, and attitude can make all of the difference in a person’s level of prosperity – otherwise known as the American Dream. The only way Cash, as well as a number of other people of color, were able to attain their position was by abandoning their morals, and any shred of their unique characters. By assimilating and allowing the system to work for them. By removing the voices from their speakers, Sorry to Bother You effectively separates the person that society wants them to be, the person who can be successful, from the person that they really are.
If there is one weakness, it’s that Sorry to Bother You oscillates between delightfully thoughtful in its application of symbolism and depth (as seen above), and almost literally beating the audience over the head with its ideas. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the character played by Steven Yeun. He’s a rebellious union organizer who wants to ensure that he and his fellow workers at the call center are given benefits and a living wage, and that’s literally it. He shows up, says something radical and brutally unsubtle about the subtext of recent events, and slides into the background until he’s called upon again. Yuen, for his part, is charming in the role and doesn’t feel out of place, but there’s only so much an actor can do.
That having been said, when Sorry to Bother You works, it works so well that the lack of finesse hardly seems to matter. Suffice it to say that the phrase “sorry to bother you” isn’t just part of Cassius’ sales script. Fearlessly facing down wildly ambitious concepts like the connection between huge corporations and pseudo-slavery, the world’s voyeuristic relationship with televised violence, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, meme culture, and the implications of valuing people only for the money they can make you, Boots Riley has made one of the most insightful and unrelenting social satires I’ve ever seen. This is the filmic equivalent of Childish Gambino’s This is America.
If there’s one thing I wish I could convey better through print, it’s just how truly bizarre the experience of Sorry to Bother You is. It’s easy to analyze symbolism and talk about how impressive the scope is, but some of this film needs to be seen to be believed. Its weird, but intelligent. Unsubtle, but undeniably compelling. Simple, but tightly wound. In reality, there’s no way this movie should work; it should have bent and broken under the considerable weight of its absurdity and ambition, and yet here we are. And to think, it’s all happening one screen over from…
Skyscraper – Rating: Die Hard + Like, A Million!/Die Hard
Geostorm. Justice League. The Hurricane Heist. And now, Skyscraper. What I expected would be just another brainless movie starring Dwayne ShootRock was instead a brilliant, visionary addition to the pantheon of so-bad-its-good. Skyscraper is a film that seems to have been written by a seventh-grader who wanted to ask one very, very important question: what if literally everything in Die Hard were bigger? Well, that question has been answered, and the answer is that this film should never have been called Skyscraper. A far more appropriate moniker would have been Hyperbole.
“I see your barefoot cop, and I’ll raise you one marine missing a leg. Oh, did I mention that he lost it when a deranged father detonated a suicide vest ten feet away while holding his son hostage? What? You set your movie in a boring administrative building? I set mine in a super futuristic skyscraper that’s the tallest structure in the world and features state of the art everything. Did I mention that my guy is trying to save his wife and his kids? Remember how lame it was that the cops wanted to help Bruce Willis rescue a bunch of hostages? My hero is being actively hunted by the police. Also, he’s Dwayne KickRock, not some dusty old 80’s star, and he’s much thicker than Bruce Willis. Also, this time the whole building’s on FIRE!”
This is what I imagine Skyscraper writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s dialogue would be should he ever enter into a conversation with Die Hard director John McTiernan, or either of its writers. I cannot impress upon you with enough intensity the sense that Mr. Thurber made a checklist of things from Die Hard, and proceeded to scribble next to each one, “Plus, like, a million!”
I’m forced to assume that this process took a considerable chunk of the time he allotted for writing the screenplay, because it’s a beautiful, glorious mess of exposition, convenient stupidity, and so much justification for its own idiocy. The plot, roughly, is as such: Dwayne PunchRock has been hired to evaluate the security of the tallest building in the world before its architect is allowed to begin leasing out the apartments that compose its upper half. Unfortunately, through a blisteringly ludicrous sequence of events, a bunch of bad guys with guns set one of the floors ablaze and disable the fire containment system so that the whole thing will go up in flames. Now it’s up to our hero to get back inside the building and save his family from either the fire, the Scandinavian mobsters, or both.
I’m not convinced that a single non-stupid thing happened for the entire runtime, to the point that I could be persuaded to believe that the film wasn’t actually meant to be set on earth. Far more likely is the possibility that it was secretly a two-hour commercial for 8K screens, and was written by 8K screen lobbyists. I draw that second speculation from the multiple scenes in this very real, actual movie that got funded and published, where human beings cannot tell the difference between what is a monitor and what is real life. Dwayne StabRock literally does not know whether he’s looking at his daughter or at a computer screen, and the only surefire way he or anybody else seems to know of discerning this information is to shoot it, or stab it with the novelty sword he found on the architect’s wall. How confused must he be by Skype?
I’m not sure what more critique Skyscraper really needs. Knowing only what I’ve told you, I am one hundred percent certain that you know whether or not you’re going to enjoy this film. For what it’s worth, I can’t possibly recommend it enough, albeit for precisely none of the reasons I would wholeheartedly suggest you see Sorry to Bother You. One is a unique, surreal analysis of the world we live in, and the other has a scene where Dwayne JumpRock dangles from the 220’th floor of a super-building by his prosthetic foot, but they’re both a hell of a good time.