Sorry to Bother You August 7, 2018
1 Hr., 51 Mins.
Sorry to Bother You, a frenzied, spectacularly original corporate comedy, premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and makes for the first filmmaking effort from Boots Riley. But in contrast to the cineastes comprising the aforementioned murderer’s row, Riley, a long-established rapper, is hardly new to the industry — and as such the movie, which comes nearly 30 years after he formed the political hip-hop group The Coup, in a way feels like an apotheosis in an imposing career rather than an out-of-left-field breakthrough.
It is unprecedented. Even the films of Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman, to which Sorry to Bother You has often been compared, bear little resemblance. The film, an anti-capitalist farce set in an alternate reality, stars the scraggy, put-down, and revelatory Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius “Cash” Green, a 20-something who is interviewing for a telemarketer job with a disreputable, but nevertheless multibillion-dollar, company called RegalView as the film opens.
Although Cash deplores the practices of RegalView, which is affiliated with WorryFree, a corporation that offers a lifetime of free food and lodging as long as you essentially work for them as an indentured servant, he is financially desperate. He lives in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage; drives a creaky sedan (for which he can only pay $0.40 at a time for gas); and can barely support his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson, wonderful), a radical artist who hardly makes any money, either.
Because RegalView values money, not qualifications, Cash is hired on the spot. The first few days are patchy, to say the least; it seems impossible to stick to the script, as the RegalView highers-up so regularly advise. But then Cash’s cubiclemate, Langston (Danny Glover), offers some guidance: If Cash were to start using his “white voice,” then customers might be more responsive to what he has to say.
Cash detests this. But when he does try it out — in the snap of a finger, he can sound just like David Cross — sales go up immediately. In a matter of weeks, he has become the most successful telemarketer in the building. There is talk that Cash will be promoted to a Power Caller position just as Detroit joins RegalView for herself and gets heavily involved with an in-development union.
Of course, Cash ascends. Literally, in a hyper-secure elevator lined in gold that plays personalized motivational speeches as you go from RegalView up to the high heights of the top-floored WorryFree.
Up there, everything is controlled by the very pretty and very assholely CEO Steve Lift (a coked-up Armie Hammer), who, it turns out, is scheming something even more nefarious than the previously mentioned modernized brand of slavery.
When April Wolfe, a movie critic with the Village Voice, threw a nosegay of eye-catching, complimentary descriptors at the movie in July — from “tits-to-the-glass” to “balls-to-the-wall” — she wasn’t being hyperbolic: this is a feverish, unpredictable pro-labor farce so pinballed and thematically weighty that to categorize it (as I already unwittingly have) is futile. It would be a disservice to prod at it too aggressively on the page; it is a movie, I think, that benefits from knowing a little, but not too much, before walking into the theater.
But what can be said, in the vaguest of terms, is that in addition to pitch-perfectly encapsulating capitalism’s ills, the movie expertly lampoons society’s valuing of fame above everything else, fixation on chaos and violence, and penchant for selling out. Prominent, too, is its jabbing at white America’s bent toward tokenization, as well as its turning a blind eye in the face of injuries inflicted by the 1 percent.
A filmmaker less gifted than Riley might unleash unconscious sanctimony, or accidentally make the film feel overstuffed. The sci-fi-tinged plot twist could have been malefic. But his pen is dipped in acid, and his directorial hand is unfathomably assured; the movie is bonkers, and it's cannily, magnificently so. It is a statement bound to be era-defining, and I can’t wait to see what Riley comes up with next. A
particularly astonishing filmmaking debut can leave you breathless. From Jean-Luc Godard’s frenetic caper À Bout de Souffle (1960) to Joel Coen’s crime parable Blood Simple (1984), from Sam Raimi's rabid supernatural horror comedy The Evil Dead (1981) to Ryan Coogler’s crushing biopic Fruitvale Station (2013), you, agog, might wonder where exactly the emerging artist behind the feature came from — and find yourself envious of their preternatural talents in the process.
This review also appeared on Verge Campus.