- Chief Film Critic
Sorry To Bother You first popped up on my radar when it was one of the most talked about movies coming out of Sundance. Created by musician and first-time director Boots Riley, I was mainly intrigued by the cast that featured Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, two young and promising actors that have emerged over the last few years. The premise of the film also interested me too. It came out locally while I was still away at the Maine International Film Festival, so couldn’t see it until I got back; it was the very first movie I went to post-MIFF and fulfilled and exceeded my expectations for it.
The film is set in an altered version of present-day Oakland. Cassius “Cash” Green (Stanfield) is an ambitious but good-natured person who starts working for a telemarketing company. The company dangles the dream of becoming a gold-level caller in front of it’s employees, access to which is granted through a gold elevator on the upper floors of the building. He lives with his girlfriend Detroit (Thompson) in the garage of his uncle’s (Terry Crews) house. At work, he befriends Squeeze (Steven Yeun) a co-worker who intends to form a telemarketer’s union through protest and picket lines. Another co-worker (Danny Glover) helps him discover his inner “white voice” which catapults Cash as a seller, but also puts his own self-interests and the interests of his striking friends and co-workers. He also discovers that being a gold-level caller is not just selling routine items, but bigger picture stuff and for questionable people like tech CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).
There are so many things that stand out about this film. It’s a film of political, social, and economic satire. Riley’s script tackles the commercialization of war, corporate capitalism, the prison-industrial complex, and greed in general in entertaining and challenging ways. According to the director, the film comes from a pro-Communist, anti-capitalist point of view. This revelation is not at all surprising given the substance of the film, but it should in no way be a deterrent for people who don’t share a similar worldview (myself included). You can disagree with the director’s worldview and still agree with some of his not-so-subtle commentary on how economic disparity feeds a prison system. In the film, people essentially sign away their freedom to go work for Lift’s company, WorryFree, which is essentially a lifetime sentence of slave labor in prison; the tradeoff is that at least they have a place to sleep and food to eat and no bills to worry about.
If this sounds like heavy subject matter, it certainly is, but Riley makes it digestible because what stands out most about this film is the sheer creativity on display. It’s an entertaining delight. The usage of the “white voice” is perfectly executed, with David Cross providing Cash’s white voice and Patton Oswalt providing the white voice for Mr. _______ (Omari Hardwick), a power seller that takes Cash under his wing when Cash arrives upstairs.
There is a lot of comedy to be found in the little details, like Detroit’s ever-changing earrings that always have a message, the slightly off demeanor of the telemarketing supervisors, or the incredibly long passcode to activate the elevator to get to the power seller’s level and the weird, sexually themed messages from the voice in the elevator. The film also takes a huge left-turn to bizarro territory in the last third of the film where Cash stumbles onto a huge conspiracy that is so completely out there and yet very much in line with the film’s overall vibe.
The funniest scene in the film, for me, was when Cash attends a party with mostly rich white people and is asked to rap after already telling people he is actually bad a rapping. Not taking no for an answer, they stop everything and hand him a microphone and wait. After a few futile attempts, he launches into a simple two-word refrain that wins over the largely, if not all, white crowd, who chant his words back at him. It’s brilliant social commentary and left me in stitches. And there are smaller examples of stuff like that sprinkled throughout the film.
Lakeith Stanfield continues to make a case for himself as a gifted actor. Cash is a regular guy, and Stanfield plays the conflicted feelings that Cash has about abandoning his friends and compromising his values well. He is also completely game when the crazy ramps up in the third act, keeping the same mostly even demeanor throughout and grounding the otherwise unbelievable happening. Tessa Thompson’s Detroit is a great supporting role, and the character is not beholden to the storyline of Cash, and she gets to do her own thing and be her own person. Thompson has quickly become one of my favorite actresses of the last few years, especially because of the variety of roles she has signed on for, and this is another great one. Armie Hammer, nearly a decade after playing the Winkelvoss twins, gives us a humorous yet slightly terrifying look at what could have been in a very twisted alternate reality where he is the most powerful man in the world and not Jesse Eisenberg’s version of Mark Zuckerberg.
I thoroughly enjoyed Sorry To Bother You. Director Boots Riley has crafted a gem of a debut film. It announces a distinct new voice in filmmaking. It’s bold in its storytelling, unashamed in its message, and confident in its ability to simultaneously entertain and challenge viewers. I’m completely confident that it will be near the top of my list for best movies at the end of the year.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars