The plot of Sorry to Bother You is familiar. A peasant longs for the royal life. He achieves it at the cost of his integrity, one bank deposit at a time. With whom will he side in the last reel when his old and new lives collide? Sorry’s peasant is Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), of Oakland, California. Ah, Oakland: where Silicon Valley warehouses its brown labor force. Green hustles his way into a low-level job where he discovers a talent for telemarketing and ascends through a sales force success montage to the rank of elite “Power Caller.” The financial rewards are impressive though they require more and more capital of conscience. Green gradually exchanges his authentic self for a performance of stereotypes. Of course he loses the respect of fiancée and friends who are trudging the picket line for a living wage.
In the days of cellulose acetate, Automatic Dialogue Replacement (ADR) required a fair bit of finesse. Imagine Howard Hawks filming a Western on location in the mouth of a cavern. John Wayne gives a rousing speech to a cavalry battalion – but the take is ruined by a passing airplane. Studio folk develop the film and project it in a loop over and over on a sound booth wall. The Duke rehearse a half-dozen times until he can remember most of the pauses and pacing of his original delivery. Audio engineers re-record his dialogue to match his lip movements – a process they repeat for each ruined scene and shot. Fortunately, ADR is more easily achieved in the digital era. Any number of cheap software programs analyze speech waveforms to ease the match of mouth and sound. But a significant challenge remains: how do you give the sound booth the same acoustic properties as the cavern?
Central to Sorry’s plot is Green’s believable mimicry of a “white voice” (provided by Arrested Development’s terminally Caucasian David Cross). Except it’s not at all believable. While the lip-sync is dead on, the acoustics are off by a country mile. The difference in sound quality is particularly distracting in the many scenes in which Stanfield’s voice is the only one replaced. Co-stars Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, and Steven Yeun, all sound as if they’re sharing a table in a noisy bar – because, well, they’re sharing a table in a noisy bar. Their voices bounce off some surfaces (the acoustically reflective table, a plate glass window), but are absorbed by others (clothing, cushions, and curtains). Cross’s voice emerges from Stanfield’s mouth too crisp and too perfect. Sure, Cross is comically nasal and archly happy, but is he also meant to sound like a closely-miked radio announcer?
A great movie can transcend bad dubbing. Consider Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon or pretty much anything made by Sergio Leone. Harder to overcome is an inconsistent diegesis. “Diegesis” is an old Greek word that describes the world of the story and the rules which govern it. In the diegesis of Star Trek, for example, explosions in space make noise. That’s not the way physics work in our world but nobody cares, so long as all Federation explosions are noisy. In the diegesis of La La Land, no one notices folks who break into song and dance. The rules don’t have to make sense, they just have to be reliably enforced.
One rule of Sorry to Bother You is that major characters with speaking parts have names. Except the one guy who doesn’t, played by Omari Hardwick. Hardwick is not some background walk-on in a crowd scene who shows up in the credits as “Fat Guy #2.” He’s Green’s very visible, very verbal mentor. And he has a name. It’s just censored. I mean censored to the point that audiences can’t hear or see it. The lips of anyone who speaks it are blurred. I’ve read enough of Bunyan and Dickens to appreciate the symbolic possibilities of a nameless person who forfeits his identity (aka “sells his soul”), but a rule break this distracting draws more attention to this character than his importance justifies.
Far more distracting than He-Who-Apparently-Must-Not-Be-Named is Sorry’s bifurcated world. So much of what I like about the film is anchored in Oakland. The city is frequently (increasingly?) invoked as code for the afflictions of prejudice and ignominy which mar the black urban experience (as in Black Panther, The Butler, Fruitvale Station, and Blindspotting). Against the backdrop of this city Tessa Thompson shines as Detroit, a performance artist. Thompson is the film’s moral center, but she never becomes the stereotypical nag who enforces community norms through sass and strategic disapproval. Her affection (and its loss) offers Green credible motivation throughout the film. Both she and Oakland comprise a winsome, authentic world.
And then there’s Doctor Moreau’s realm of Sadistic game shows. Largely consigned to television screens is this Pee Wee’s Dystopia, where bright colors and Claymation tell the story of slaves living and laboring to prop up their corporate masters’ lifestyle of wealth. The plot to overthrow the white one-percent puts would-be savior Green on a collision course with a well-endowed stable of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion nightmares. These monsters are so visually different from the residents of Oakland, the diegesis shatters entirely at the climactic moment it most desperately needs to cohere.
Sorry to Bother You registers with a majority of reviewers as an important film, though its premise is hardly new. Academics like Washington University’s John Baugh have studied linguistic profiling for years. Data published by Baugh in 2006 affirms that, yes, people who “sound white” have more success with potential employers, real estate agents, loan officers and service providers. But scholarly papers seldom offers the rhetorical punch of a narrative film.
Enter Boots Riley, one of diversity’s new voices who can now be heard thanks to the democratization of media. As films get cheaper to make (a paltry $3.2 million in the case of Sorry), niche audiences are accurately targeted online and in the multiplex, and the barrier to entry inches downward – anyone can make a movie. And in the case of Sorry to Bother You, anyone has.