DIRECTED BY: Boots Riley
FEATURING: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Omari Hardwick, David Cross (voice), Patton Oswalt (voice), Danny Glover
PLOT: When telemarketer Cassius Green learns to use his “white voice,” he shoots up the corporate ranks, becomes a “power caller,” and is asked to compromise his principles in a shocking way.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Boots Riley’s out-of-nowhere satire plays like something Putney Swope‘s long-lost grandson might have dreamed up after an all-night pot-smoking session. I’m not going to get swept up by the mainstream hyperbole and tell you that it dials the absurdity up to “11”—but it pushes a solid 9. And it gets bonus points for using the word “weird” as a selling point in its marketing campaign.
COMMENTS: Struggling to find a job that will pay the rent on his meager garage apartment and provide gas money for the rustbucket hand-me-down car his uncle gave him, Cassius Green stumbles into the sleazy entry-level sales world of telemarketing. An idealistic co-worker (Steven Yeun) wants to unionize, but when Cash learns to use his “white voice” to make sales, he’s promoted to a “Power Caller” instead, and sent (in a golden elevator) to the top floor to hawk Faustian inventory to multinational corporations for top dollar. His success causes friction with his performance artist girlfriend Detroit (sexy and sassy Tessa Thompson), who embraces the new luxurious lifestyle briefly before deciding she misses the soul Cash sold, and letting her eye wander towards a more romantic target with more integrity.
That synopsis sounds like a pretty standard setup for a romantic comedy, and Sorry to Bother You successfully orients its audience in that familiar genre before springing surprise after surprise as the plot gets deeper and weirder. We’re eased into the strangeness with magical realist comedy sketches: still wearing his headset, Cash appears in the flesh at his cold calls’ dinner tables, among more intimate settings. Then there’s the uncanny “white voice” (explained in a revealing cameo monologue by Danny Glover). By the time Cash is high on cocaine watching a claymation corporate propaganda film hosted by a topless ape woman, you’re totally immersed and invested in an anything-can-happen world very different from where we started. A company pimping out contractual slavery, Detroit’s confrontational earrings, a character whose name has been redacted, a performance of a monologue from The Last Dragon, and a badly improvised rap are just a few of the cleverly absurd gags that help distract us the nightmare scenario at the center of the film. It works on two levels; genuinely funny, at times even hilarious, the laughs keep the audience hypnotized in their seats while the message seeps into the brains. Just like any good ad campaign.
Sorry to Bother You‘s world is similar enough to our own to be recognizable, but askew enough off that the satire never seems like a facile paint by numbers allegory. There are no obvious characters from the current administration, but there is a reality TV show called “I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!”, and it’s possible to become a 15-minute celebrity by having a video of you being brained with a coke can make the rounds on YouTube. The movie addresses issues of racial identity, carnivalesque cultural depravity, and the working class’ financial treadmill with a touch that’s light but firm. It’s a sneaky sucker punch square in the zeitgeist’s gut. Thank you, Sorry to Bother You, for bothering me.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“‘Sorry to Bother You,’ Boots Riley’s see-it-to-believe-it feature debut as a director, goes from agreeably strange to weird to surreal, but its brilliance lies in how it never stops feeling real, genuine, lived-in.”–Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)