Sorry to Bother You, 2018.
Written and Directed by Boots Riley.
Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Danny Glover, David Cross, Terry Crews, Omari Hardwick, Michael X. Sommers, Kate Berlant, Robert Longstreet, Lily James, Patton Oswalt, Rosario Dawson, Shelley Mitchell, and Forest Whitaker.
In an alternate present-day version of Oakland, telemarketer Cassius Green discovers a magical key to professional success, propelling him into a macabre universe.
If Sorry to Bother You feels like a music video/concept album approach to peering into a wide variety of relevant themes ranging from race relations, the underclass of America (specifically centered on minorities), bottomless corporate greed, the juxtaposition between fruitlessly creating meaningful art and working an unsavory but lucrative job, some rather inhumane treatment of working-class citizens (for the love of God, don’t let anyone tell you a single word about the entire third act), and a whole lot more, all with a scattershot approach that yields varying levels of effectiveness and success, it’s due to the fact that writer and director Boots Riley (making his filmmaking debut) is a talented musician in his own right with the electronic/hip-hop sounding group The Coup (it’s worth mentioning that the movie is dedicated to some now deceased members).
There’s also the impression that he was nervous he would never get the chance to make another movie again (trust me, after having seen this, he will definitely get more and more opportunities to challenge his own audacious visions and the minds of audiences alike), stuffing in every thought and amplifying the lunacy of these concepts. To be fair, everything ties together fine enough, but a little focus goes a long way in a filmmaker’s ability to flesh out certain ideas and make an unforgettable impact on the viewer. Keeping this in mind, Sorry to Bother You is rather freewheeling, touching on a number of socially relevant topics without clear direction, but it’s impossible to deny that Boots Riley finds his voice in the home stretch. The last 30 minutes or so is an amalgamation of everything previously discussed funneled through what basically amounts to a fucked up modern-day episode of The Twilight Zone. Superlatives such as “wild” and “insane” don’t do the film nearly enough justice. The phrase “you have to see this to believe it” often gets thrown around a lot, especially in this industry, but it hasn’t applied to a film more this decade with the arrival of Sorry to Bother You. The less you know going in, the better.
With that said, very lightly going over the basic plot, Sorry to Bother You follows the young and struggling Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield letting loose his inner comedic sensibilities and showcasing the same kind of winning charm that made audiences cheer on Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort during immoral business transactions and insatiable greed) who earns a job at a nearby telemarketing corporation. What’s the magical tactic to success, you ask? Don’t talk like a brother, use a smooth and upper-class sounding caucasian voice. Admittedly, this joke doesn’t sustain itself throughout the 105-minute running time but the initial laughs coming from the voices of such notable names like David Cross and Patton Oswalt coming out of these characters are as golden as the elevator that leads to the Power Caller suite, AKA, where the big money is made.
Cassius gets in touch with his white self (so much that occasionally he forgets to revert back to his own voice) so effortlessly that it’s not long before he’s up in the big leagues wrestling with his conscience regarding scratching the back of Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift, a CEO of an evil company attempting to bring about a new form of slavery. He’s also consistently coked out of his mind and throws parties that belong in Eyes Wide Shut. Meanwhile, Cassius slowly but surely betrays everyone from his supportive and artistically minded girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and a host of friends looking to create a union and force enough pay to make ends meet, even at the cost of starting riots in front of the building.
It does have to be said that this could have been handled better; Cassius never once gives the impression that he is the kind of person that would go full-on Scrooge the second he gets a taste of big-money, betraying everyone that cares about him without a second thought. The shift in character is sudden and not explored in much depth, but then again, neither is anyone else. The first act is all about making sales in some ridiculous scenarios (visually, Cassius is imagined at his desk dropping in on customers from the ceiling, allowing for sidesplitting humor and clever realization of the nature in which telemarketers interrupt one’s day) and the third act is beyond crazy, but the middle, unfortunately, has quite a bit of dead air while Boots Riley is turning the gears. Again, the script could have benefited from a rewrite or simply removing elements in favor of focusing on what works best.
However, where the film ends up is so reflective of our current times that it becomes downright horrifying. Essentially, unspeakable crimes against humanity are committed, and much like what’s been going on recently in America with families being separated at the border… not enough people have the empathy to give a shit. And some of the people that do express their outrage are just as quick to drown themselves back into garbage television (there’s a trash TV game show here to drive home the point). At one point, the narrative elicited one of the most uncomfortable laughs I’ve ever had in my entire life. Sorry to Bother You is all over the map, but the messages from Boots Riley are loud and clear. If you’re assuming that this will be a film solely about the racial divide, then you’re wrong; it consistently evolves tackling new themes usually while heading in bizarre plot directions. Nothing can prepare you.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com