I'm not sure what kind of sense to make of Sorry, Haters. Billed as a psychological thriller, it's one of those films that layers one plot twist on top of another until there have been so many change ups, I no longer know what to think about it.
Filmed on location in New York City and shot on digital video, Sorry, Haters begins as a post-9/11 story about the collision of two people from different social worlds. Robin Wright Penn (Nine Lives) plays Phoebe, an employee of Q-Dog, an MTV-like television station. She is responsible for the television show "Sorry, Haters," in which rock stars show off their fancy homes to make the common people feel inadequate. What that has to do with the rest of the movie is never quite clear. Despite giving his movie the same title as this fictional show, writer/director Jeff Stanzler isn't making a commentary on media culture, nor does he have a character shout the phrase "Sorry, Hater!" at someone the way perennial loser Fred Durst does on one of the background Q-Dog segments. The closest I can figure is that maybe the flaunting of conspicuous consumption somehow ties into the white liberal guilt that causes Phoebe to force her help on the hapless Muslim cab driver who picks her up. Ashade (Abdellatif Kechiche) has a brother who has been arrested by Homeland Security by mistake, and Phoebe insists she knows a lawyer who will spring him.
Ashade is right to deny Phoebe's aid. She's clearly unhinged. She hired him to take her out to her ex-husband's house so she can spy on him, her daughter, and the new wife. Before they go, she vandalizes their car. Even so, Phoebe pushes her way into Ashade's life, meeting his sister-in-law Eloise (Élodie Bouchez, "Alias") and his niece. As Phoebe's behavior gets more inconsistent, Ashade finally bails on her, only to discover the next morning she robbed him and has pretty much lied about everything.
The next thing we know, Phoebe is exacting revenge on Ashade's family, and we're never quite sure why. It's a pretty heinous action, and it compels Ashade to retaliate. He attacks her, but his rage is quickly quelled, and the pair end up crying together on the floor of her apartment. There is a big emotional scene where Phoebe says she has done what she did because on 9/11 her friend Phyllis (Sandra Oh, Sideways), who is far more successful than Phoebe is, called her in a panic and Phoebe was able to help her. On "that day," as she consistently calls it--everyone is seemingly afraid to actually refer to it by name--she was able to do right by someone else. She wants to capture that feeling again, to feel useful.
Except how does her stated motivation gel with her actions? What she did to Ashade is completely destructive, so how has she become the savior? Everything she has promised him is a lie, so it's not like she can bail his family out. As if that isn't baffling enough, Ashade completely forgives her. After tearfully proclaiming that she took everything away from him, I guess he decided that since she's around, she'll do as a replacement for what he lost. From there, we get a couple of more twists, a semi-romantic kiss, and then an ending that defies all logical explanation. As if to tie it all home, Stanzler cuts to a Sonic Youth song and puts Phoebe's name, the title "That Day," and the Q-Dog stamp in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, aping the MTV graphics that inform viewers of what video they have just watched. Is this meant to tell us that Phoebe is in her own twisted version of a music video? Because the imagery doesn't really resonate. It's a total "What the hell?" moment. Saying she is psychotic is not really enough of an explanation. The filmmaker is obviously intending to say something. Either that, or it's just a superfluous detail, and Stanzler needs to learn some self-control.
To be honest, for the first half of the film, I was with Sorry, Haters. Robin Wright Penn and Abdellatif Kechiche are actors of considerable skill. Both of them act in a naturalistic style, getting deep into the skin of their characters, and the result is intensely believable. The contrast of the two characters works. He is passive and content to soldier on in his suffering, and she is all about rash action, getting things done. When she suggests they engage in terrorist action, it seems like Stanzler is going to pull an interesting switch, portraying an American woman who wants to help a Syrian immigrant strike back at her country's injustice toward him and his people. Stanzler follows this up by having Phoebe receive a box of explosives and do what all crazy people do in movies: she builds a collage.
Only, Stanzler doesn't stick with the idea. Phoebe's end motivations are just as much of a mystery as the presence of the "Sorry, Haters" TV show. Maybe Stanzler picked his title so that he'd have a catchphrase that would double as a built-in defense against critics like me, and were he here now, he'd label me a hater and say I just don't get it. If that were the case, I'd be fine with it, because he took the good will he engendered at the beginning of the film and he blew it. So, yes, I am a hater, and frankly, I'm due an apology.
If nothing else, Sorry, Haters looks nice. Stanzler's New York is crisp and alive, and the look of the film reflects the quiet character piece we assume it's going to be. The DVD is done in a "matted" widescreen format in its theatrical ratio.
The sound was mixed in 5.1, and it's just fine for the most part. Sometimes I had a hard time making out what was being said, and I kept having to turn up the volume despite it already being turned up pretty high. I'm not exactly sure what the problem was. Abdellatif Kechiche has an accent that can be a little thick, and while he was often the one I was trying to decipher, it wasn't an issue exclusive to him.
The Sorry, Haters DVD includes a roundtable discussion called "No Apologies." Put together by the Independent Film Channel, it is moderated by Tim Robbins, and features actress Mary-Louise Parker, director and painter Julian Schnabel, and film writers Paul Thompson and Lisa Hintelman. It's just under fifteen minutes long, but in it the participants try to puzzle out the meaning of Sorry, Haters and share their reactions. They make some connections that I didn't (her self-mutilation to the damage she causes cars), and to their credit, aren't afraid to offer a little dissent. None of them seemed to understand one of the final images of the film, for instance, and a few have similar problems with the motivations of the taxi driver that I did. It's a good extra, as it's interesting to listen to smart people like this debate a work of art. They didn't change my reaction, but they made me think.
The second bonus is the audio commentary by Jeff Stanzler and Robin Wright Penn. A lot of it is technical, discussing filming and locations and how things were physically put together. It also strays into more meaningful territory, and Stanzler reveals that some of his intention was to confound. He didn't want to make a movie where the audience knew exactly what to feel in each and every frame of the film. This revelation, along with others, is inspired by the largely negative critical reaction to Sorry, Haters (I'm not alone), and it is intriguing to hear both the director and the actor discuss the movie in terms of what has thrown viewers about the movie, even when it's a little too defensive. The pathology behind Wright Penn's character is explained in detail, and some illumination is cast on the meaning of the ending, though I don't necessarily buy the explanation. Plus, is a film really successful if it requires this kind of clarification from the artist? For my money, it should be on the screen. That's why I leave the main portion of this write-up intact, giving my real reactions before going further into the DVD experience. That said, it's an insightful commentary and worth a listen if you're curious about the thinking that went into such a disjointed product.
Rent It. Sorry, Haters starts off great, boosted by some exceptional performances. Two-thirds in, it loses the plot and everything goes haywire, but there might be enough in that first hour to still make it worth checking out. Plus, given the added features on the DVD, there is more about the film to explore and discuss, and if you like cracking open the ambiguities of a particular piece of art, what you ultimately end up with may satisfy you even if the movie itself does not.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.