Movies

Sorry to Bother You Had the Best—and Most Painful—Jokes of the Year

The 2018 Movie Club: Entry 3.

Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry To Bother You.
Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry To Bother You.
Annapurna Pictures

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin Collins, Amy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.

Howdy, friends!

As Kam escapes to the past and Dana checks the batteries on her 2018 cuckoo clock, I write to you from the future, which is where my brain’s been squatting since I saw Sorry to Bother You at Sundance. Activist director Boots Riley’s ambition set the tone for the whole year. Dana, I think you came over to my Park City rental for whiskey and cookies while I was still trying to process this merciless comedy about a money-hungry call center pitchman (Lakeith Stanfield) who sells human slaves. The villain, played by Armie Hammer, isn’t some plantation redneck (the alpha blonde already did that in The Birth of a Nation) but a Silicon Valley tech-bro disrupter convincing Americans to sign their lives over to his three-hots-and-a-cot unpaid workforce, WorryFree. Activist director Boots Riley’s ambition set the tone for the whole year. Riley’s got style and he’s got big ideas—and he’s not apologetic when his jabs make you wince instead of laugh.

2018’s best jokes hurt. Sorry to Bother You felt like a roast of capitalism at Cesar Chavez’s funeral. Which is why, as zinging as the jokes felt in 2018, I enjoy them even more imagining myself as a critic in 2038 who could place the film at the start of the artistic and political revolution that I hope is already underway. (A cultural transformation that might even stabilize film criticism, which broadened right when the job options winnowed, like an LP balanced on a pin.) Like an anthropologist from the future, I wound up watching a lot of this year’s films from the safe distance of an idealized tomorrow. Should our profession survive to 2038—hey, at least we can’t be outsourced to robots—I look forward to panning Oliver Stone’s eventual biopic of the Trump era. “I lived it!” I’ll grumble to my robot cat, “And Sarah Huckabee Sanders was not actually funny!”

Bold films like Sorry to Bother You tend to get bypassed and rediscovered. Its bruises are too fresh to autopsy. Let me add to that list a sharp little thriller called Cam, about a porn tart with too many internet identities, which might look tits-out and crass but will someday help historians understand how social media’s first decade ended, with people’s self-identities (not to mention the country) cleaved in two.

And I gotta hype Joseph Kahn’s Bodied, a savage black comedy about a ginger-haired Berkeley grad student named Adam (a fearless Calum Worthy) who wants to write his thesis on “the poetic functions of the N-word in battle rap,” an art form that lauds insults. Watching Bodied was, well, an out-of-body experience; I wanted to crawl out of my skin as Adam learned painful lessons about the power of words, especially when his girlfriend, classmates, professors, and battle-rap rivals bash him with labels like “racist” and “KKK.” (As one little girl screams, “Get woke, cocksucker.”) The film is fun as hell—I saw it with a midnight audience who whooped the whole time. But there isn’t a single second where Kahn, who’s unsparing toward both Adam and the language police who get their own nasty thrills from feeling morally superior, lets the audience feel sheltered from the hypocrisy under attack.

Bodied deserves to be a cult hit. Maybe later, it will be. And as Kam pointed out, in the noise of the present—especially when films and the online conversations around them are #problematic—it’s hard to discern what a movie says, and what the audience hears. I’ve also noticed that I’ve stopped fighting about movies online, though I’ll backslide right now to say that A Star Is Born is totally anti-pop—that SNL ass-ass-ass song was so-so-so embarrassing.

Ahem. Anyways, while talking through the AFI Top 100 on my podcast Unspooled, with the comedian Paul Scheer, I’ve found the big flaw in my 2038 tactic: In the future, we’re probably still going to be mired in the same conversations about justice and inequality. After all, we’ve made films before about all of today’s problems, just without Boots Riley’s 8-foot animatronic horse costumes. The flicks change, but the conflicts stay the same, which is why we can’t conflate acclaim with action.

I’ll be honest: I got a little depressed noting the overwhelming support for 1967’s hot-button film In the Heat of the Night (AFI No. 75), where Sidney Poitier’s urbane cop bests a racist Mississippi town. (If you want to see Green Book’s chords played sforzando, give it a go.) One week after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, In the Heat of the Night won five Oscars, including Best Picture, and went on to spark two sequels and a TV show. I can imagine reading a dozen think pieces that from this moment on, Things Would Change. I can even imagine writing one.

Still, at the light speed of internet chatter, we might need less time than the two decades I’ve been imagining to cut through the buzz. I hereby bet in five years, we’ll be better able to properly rank Black Panther as the solid blockbuster it is, rather than demand that Ryan Coogler break box-office records (check), win an Oscar (eh), and cure cancer. (Hey Coogs, you’re only 32—there’s time.) With so many opening weekends feeling as high-stakes as an election (Annihilation: Vote women for sci-fi!), you have to mentally skip ahead to the better, more diverse Hollywood we’re building to gauge a film beyond its current context.

So yes, it makes sense that some of this year’s most resonant movies were about filmmakers taking stock of their past, as if trying to see it clearly for the first time. Did Alfonso Cuarón really have to restock the shops of 1970s Mexico City with period-appropriate price tags on the soup cans in order to understand his childhood maid as a three-dimensional human being? I feel guilty rolling my eyes at Roma, especially because it’s the kind of humane storytelling I’d rather have Hollywood spend $50 million on than CG fisticuffs. (Roma: Vote big budgets for dramas!) But I respected it more than I enjoyed it.

I’m so glad you guys also liked The Tale. That flicker-smash moment Kam describes where director Jennifer Fox recasts herself from luminescent ingénue to gawky tween has stomped around my brain all year, banging on corners of my history that I too forcibly misremembered. And then there’s Sandi Tan’s documentary Shirkers, assembled from footage of the ultra-’90s indie she and her teenage friends filmed in Singapore before an older man absconded with their reels. As a suburban kid in Texas, I aspired to be as cool as a young artist like Tan, who was on such an advanced plane beyond the Ghost World girls that she was interdimensional. On a basic level, Shirkers is about three dreamers victimized by a jealous adult. But one of Tan’s driving questions is one she outright asks her former friends: Am I a jerk? Which puts her in conversation with all of 2018’s weird and prickly and wonderful women whom I can’t wait to talk about more with you all as Movie Club continues. To tease that conversation, here’s my Top 10 list, which is packed with screwy dames, plus one somber priest.

1. The Favourite
2. Sorry to Bother You
3. Burning
4. Support the Girls
5. First Reformed
6. Shoplifters
7. Shirkers
8. Blindspotting
9. Thoroughbreds
10. Bodied

Bilge, you put Shirkers on your list of the year’s best documentaries. Not listed: One of the biggest doc hits of the year, Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, his paean to Mr. Rogers. I loved the man and loved watching his vintage footage but also felt the film itself was a bit of a marshmallow. If it wins an Oscar over true achievements like Shirkers or Minding the Gap, you better believe I’ll mutter some words that would make Fred Rogers leap out of his cardigan. Are we the jerks, to begrudge the millions of people who just wanted to visit an old fantasyland where everyone is kind?

I adore you all today and beyond,
A

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