Enough time has passed since 9/11 that filmmakers are beginning to feel comfortable talking about it in their films. In Sorry, Haters, writer and director Jeff Stanzler wonders if, for some, tragedy is an addiction. New Yorkers, in particular, pride themselves on their ability to unify in the face of adversity. The blackout of 2003 and the "blizzard" of 2006 each had newscasters (and the Mayor) standing on street corners, lauding the citizens and their willingness to band together. Would we be so concerned with that image if we didn't have to live up to the expectations created by 9/11? We have a duty to fulfill, it seems, and for some life was never better than it was in the shadow of no towers.
Phoebe (Robin Wright Penn, frenetically overacting) has a thankless job at Q-Dog, an MTV-type conglomerate. Her closest friends are well-meaning, but ultimately oblivious, not to mention richer and more successful; Phoebe's jealousy is palpable. In tragedy, however, all are equal, and this becomes her focus and biggest fantasy: how to make it happen—to recreate that feeling of belonging—all over again? The premise is an interesting one, and not unfathomable. Tragedy does bring a community closer together, not to mention the pride that comes with "living through" said tragedy. In a time where war, for many, is an abstract, far-away thing fed to us piecemeal by network talking heads, just living through seemingly random violence is equivalent to courage, and as we know from all war films, courage equals bonding. What to do, then, when the camaraderie fades away? If you're a xenophobic single white female with a penchant for cutting and Pomeranians, you decide that it's time for a new 9/11. But a single white female with a fluffy Pomeranian is hardly terrorist material, so you've got to recruit.
Enter Ashade (Abdellatif Kechiche), the archetypal good guy/down-on-his-luck cab driver. Sure, he's got a PhD in Chemistry (who doesn't!), but America is oblivious to non-American success, and so he pounds the pavement on four wheels in order to support his sister-in-law and her infant. Ashade's brother is in prison after being picked up at the U.S.-Canadian border and is being held on suspicion of involvement with a terrorist cell. Like Ashade, he is a holder of an advanced degree, which we're meant to interpret as proof of innocence -- smart people don't do bad things. Does Ashade get angry? No. He patiently plods through the bureaucratic process, writing letters and saving money, in order to secure his brother's release. His passivity and pride don't permit him to ask for outside help, and he blushes when the men at his mosque sneak a roll of twenties into his locker.
Phoebe meets Ashade when she hails down his cab for a bizarre, tormented journey to New Jersey to scratch up Sandra Oh's (playing a Q-Dog top exec) new SUV and suck down a half-pint of whiskey. Somewhere along the way she entangles herself in Ashade's family troubles, promising to enlist the help of a company lawyer. At this point it's obvious that Phoebe has issues—she's alternately chatty and sinister, not to mention drunk—but Ashade is blinded by the new hope of getting his brother released, and it doesn't dawn on him that she might not have his best interests at heart until she straight-up suggests that violent retribution against the evil Americans—not lawyers and paper trails--is his best tactic. Ashade balks, Phoebe threatens, and a "thriller" is born.
In an attempt to beef up the chaos factor of his thriller, Stanzler resorts to a mash-up of dramatic plot and character conceits. It's not enough that Phoebe is a would-be terrorist--she's also a cutter, thief, vandal, racist, accountant, and high-functioning obsessive dog lover. Surely one or two of those traits would suffice, but all of them? That no one seems to notice in the slightest how Phoebe is cracking up could be considered a comment on the emotional disconnect of modern times, but it merely made me scribble the phrase, " this is absurd" in my notebook a few more times.
And then Stanzler throws in Sonic Youth. Really. To be specific, a Q-Dog video for "Bull in the Heather," in which a young woman who looks suspiciously like the Breeders' Kim Deal, but probably is not, steps in front of a truck while holding a small, cute dog. If this is yet another Stanzler-effect meant to emphasize the moral deficiency of our Q-Dog universe, I honestly can't say. Like so many other elements of the film, it feels arbitrarily tossed in, as if Stanzler is attempting to make the world's most complicated salad from the contents of a emo-punk's refrigerator. The song and the video bookend the film, leaving one confused as to whether or not you've been watching one long music video and what, exactly, any of this has to do with anything.
As our thriller quickens its pace, the passive Ashade is finally driven to action. He shaves his beard, renounces his God, and embarks on a mission of revenge against Phoebe, who has managed to seriously fuck up his life. But Ashade, being the "good guy," cannot possibly persevere against an enemy as confounding as this crazy-ass white girl. He cannot accept that there is real evil in this world, and ultimately wants to believe that Phoebe, terrifying as she is, can be healed with hugs.
Not so fast, Ashade! You can't make things right with hugs and kisses in this age of unlimited-Mimosa brunches and Thurston Moore. How dare you! Bring on the reality smack, writer/director Jeff Stanzler—let this softie know where things stand. I won't give away the totally awesome ending, because I've been asked politely by the press kit not to... ah, what the hell, I'll do it anyway. (Spoiler alert!) Phoebe gets her way, Ashade learns that Americans really do suck, and what could have been a fascinating and subtle analysis of our secret attraction to disaster is, in the end, an amateur experiment in overkill.