Boots Riley is the truth. His directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, is one of the most bizarre cultural commentaries you will ever see. The targets of Riley’s critiques vary, from broad concepts like race relations and corporate greed, to more specific ideas like viral fame and code-switching. But the setup is simple: Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a black man in Oakland struggling to make his rent – which he owes to his very generous uncle. He’s hired for a telemarketing job, but fails to find success until he listens to a seasoned veteran: use your white voice. Armed with the pleasant, non-threatening voice of a milquetoast white man (David Cross), Cash quickly climbs the corporate ladder – and stumbles into the weirdest things along the way.
The satire is the most fragile of all the genres. Drama fails or succeeds on the strength of very definite qualities like story, character, and pathos. Comedy has leeway with its execution on account of its casual tone, as even the blackest comedies have a jokey kernel. Strict genre fare or action is even more forgiving: as long as the film hits a few key points, we enjoy the parts that hit, and dismiss the parts that miss (i.e., the recent Mad Max, which is awesome yet fairly bereft of story). But with satire, if certain elements are missing – a unifying vision, a stylistic conceit, or even a single performance – then the product just feels off. So is the case with War Machine, the Netflix film from Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment. Though the satirical aspirations of this send-up of the War on Terror are apparent and welcome, there are simply too many missteps.