Sorry To Bother You. 2018.
Directed by Boots Riley.
Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews, Kate Berlant, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Robert Longstreet, David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Lily James, Forest Whitaker, and Rosario Dawson.
In an alternate present-day version of Oakland, telemarketer Cassius Green discovers a magical key to professional success, propelling him into a macabre universe.
Sorry To Bother You. A film title, a telemarketer greeting, a cordial address intended to otherwise incite frustration. Boots Riley – much like Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal do with Blindspotting – has something to say about Oakland’s microcosm gentrification that now speaks to our entire nation. Not only that, but both films nurture megaphone-in-your-ear means of making you listen. One as Hamilton for the “don’t shoot” generation, Riley’s a distant cousin to Flying Lotus’ outrageous Kuso. Not full “the world is burning, here’s a dude f:@&ing some girl’s anthropomorphic neck boil” (Kuso is something, y’all), but like I said, a *distant* cousin as obscurity takes hold. And while I think this devotion to attention-grabbing oddities sometimes distracts from Riley’s cause, Sorry To Bother You is still as ambitious or eccentrically explorative a debut I’ve ever seen. Three cheers for making you think, however accomplished.
LaKeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green, an impoverished boyfriend to artist Detroit (Tessa Thompson) currently living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage. “Cash” needs cash ASAP. He gets a job cold-calling for conglomerate RegalView with moderate success until a coworker flashes his secret weapon: “white voice”. As Cassius racks up the sales using his own “white voice” (comedian David Cross), managers begin whispering about a possible promotion to Power Caller status (big leagues a floor above where *real* money is made). This is at the same time Squeeze (Steven Yeun) is organizing the unionization of all lowly RegalView telemarketers, but when Cassius get the call upstairs, will he cross their picket line? All for one, until Cassius gotta do him.
So what is Sorry To Bother You. A call to arms over exploited labor classes? A commentary on ditching your “hood” characteristics in order to be successful? Not giving someone a chance based on stereotypes or preconceptions? A vessel for Armie Hammer to play “Zuckerberg on acid” in flowy linens? All of that, which you wouldn’t automatically deduce from trailers. Where Blindspotting makes Oakland into a character, Sorry To Bother You could be any cultural battleground. And where Blindspotting is a little angrier, Sorry To Bother You channels more artistic expressionism in a way that molds these dualling narratives into companion pieces – not competition.
Riley’s greatest accomplishment is the conceit of “white voices” and how Cassius becomes brainwashed out of heritage. The minute Danny Glover – who, yes, is “too old for this shit” – projects his ventriloquist trick, all bets are off. You might assume Sorry To Bother You a bit of a beat-poet’s style until then, but the introduction of nasally, easily identifiable honky tones is an ushering of madness to follow. Hammer’s Steve Lift railing lines of coke longer than sushi rolls, Detroit’s blood-and-bullets art show – yet Riley’s fearful trepidation is never better than this puppeteer metaphor. Gentrification can be seen as this greater populous blessing, and Riley finds an attention-grabbing way to comment on erasures to those who built places like Oakland. In the form of dining, crying and fucking phone answers who’d only stay on the line for Cassius if he adapted to *their* prejudices. Poverty exploited. Talk about some bullshit.
As Cassius rises the RegalView ranks and learns inner “secrets” of WorryFree’s “happy life” methodology, Steve List’s drug-fueled power trip imposes both megalomaniac greed and distracts with experimentation gone wild. All I’m saying is Equestrisapians (spelling?). Slave labor, working conditions, an imbalance of rights between billionaire company owners and minimum-wage-if-lucky grunt lemmings. Workforce production is the only language affluent CEOs speak, and it’s become an American ideal at this point – which is all readable, but absurdity somehow softens Riley’s blow. Attitudes rage even in the “sorry to bother you” message of “sorry to inconvenience you for intruding on our cities and asking for the simplest living condition compensation” and this isn’t lost. There’s just something about being so stricken by List’s mad genetics to even remember the human fight at play. Laughs are stagnant at points and over-the-topness goes a bit too far. Ambition in spades, if a tad reductive.
Not to be lost are the performances of *all* players caught in Riley’s web of misalignment. Stanfield is justifiably torn between clean struggling and dirty success. Hammer steals scenes as the maniacal entrepreneur who couldn’t give less of a damn about his employees. Tessa Thompson is an indie angel who challenges normality as a good social fire starter should, just as much as Yeun’s sedately level-headed normality challenger dares to rattle status quos. The greatest achievement of Sorry To Bother You is sandwiching meaningful performances between absurd methodologies of making a difference. Everyone player’s arc asserts meaning whether they stage an Africa-themed artistic protest or worry about turning into a horse beast.
Sorry To Bother You is a boldly abstract opposition against things that should not be. A brother, sister, and everything else to Blindspotting, if not as crystal clear or steady in comparison. Ridiculous trips into cramped VIP rooms and “Nice-Off” verbal battles are exactly what they should be. The more meaningful SWAT team riots? Punchy to an intended degree, but beholden to internet media skewering by way of viral toxicity (that leads to a knockout line about “calling your congressman” and why people don’t). In no way should you forgo this creatively inclined display of despised regression – just expect the insane, “weird” and sometimes disjointed. In short? Boots Riley, never stop doing what you do.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★ / Movie: ★★★