Sorry To Bother You
Upward mobility gets weird in off-kilter comedy
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Directed by Boots Riley
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Steven Yeun
Chicago rapper Boots Riley turns filmmaker in his idiosyncratic but exciting writing-directing debut Sorry To Bother You. The film freely mixes the sharp-toothed capitalist satire of Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope with the two-
Set in an “alternate present,” the film introduces audiences to a familiar/unfamiliar Oakland, Calif. Homeless encampments crowd the streets (and I do mean crowd). The most popular TV show is “I Got the Shit Kicked Out Of Me” (a title which explains it all). And the country’s biggest employer is “Worry Free Living,” a company that promises free housing, three meals a day and lifetime employment. (It’s actually just prison, but it’s been “rebranded.”) Our protagonist in this near-Idiocracy dystopia is Cassius Green (intense-eyed Lakeith Stanfield from Get Out). Green is an unambitious young black man obsessed with his looming mortality and his lack of employment. His girlfriend (the suddenly essential Tessa Thompson from Selma, Creed, Thor: Raganrok and “Westworld”), by way of contrast, is a firebrand performance artist. (She also moonlights as an Antifa-esque anti-corporate terrorist.)
No longer able to afford rent (in his uncle’s garage), Cassius wheedles his way into a crappy job as a telemarketer, selling encyclopedias (of all things). At first he seems hopeless, but—taking advice from the sensei in the neighboring cubicle (Danny Glover)—he adopts a “white voice” (David Cross, badly synched—although that appears to be part of the joke). Suddenly, Cassius is selling encyclopedias at an alarming rate. This catches the attentions of the big bosses in upper management, who want to promote Cassius to “power seller” status.
Will Cassius stick with his fellow wage slaves (including Jermaine Fowler from “Superior Donuts” and Steven Yeun from “The Walking Dead”), all of whom are dreaming of unionizing, or will he sell out for the fat salaries, private offices and luxurious elevators of corporate America? This is no simple Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? scenario, however. Power sellers don’t get rich hawking encyclopedias. They make their skrilla selling nuclear weapons and slavery to corporations and governments around the world.
Riley clearly isn’t content to stick with the typical clichés of power vs. integrity, money vs. love. He continually amps up the absurdity, racing from one bizarre plot element to another—finally tumbling straight into a loony sci-fi twist in the film’s out-of-left-field third act. At times it feels as if Riley’s fingers have peeled off the film’s rattling handlebars. The plot sometimes seems as if its been applied to the film’s screenplay with a shotgun. The film’s unexpected twist is too strange to really sympathize with. And not all the jokes land with both feet. But the strength of Riley’s convictions stays true. Sorry To Bother You is not the work of a practiced, disciplined filmmaker. It’s the work of a manic, committed, wildly creative first-timer. He’s got a lot to say about economic inequalities in America and the continuing exploitation/
Stanfield and Thompson make their mark. Thompson’s parade of earrings alone deserve an Oscar. And Stanfield evinces a tidy transformation over the course of the film, from his initial scenes hunched over in existential dread to later scenes bursting with goofy “white voice” pride to his final stretch spent stumbling about confused and contused as the world collapses around him. Armie Hammer (The Social Network, Call Me By Your Name) drops by as the coke-addled CEO offering up some devilish temptation to our man Cassius and certainly looks like he’s having fun doing it.
Sorry To Bother You is a loopy, unpolished, capricious collage of comedy, satire, sci-fi, fantasy (and just a drop of horror). Anything this freewheeling probably shouldn’t work at all. But its maker certainly doesn’t lack for ambition. Leaning hard into his surreal, midnight movie tendencies, Riley has created a one-of-a-kind piece of social criticism disguised as one very weird comedy.