Every time Tessa Thompson’s character in Sorry to Bother You shows up, she is wearing a new pair of earrings of her own design. These serve as the perfect metaphor for the movie itself: they are big, impractical, provocative, lack any subtlety any whatsoever—but more importantly, you love looking at them, and you want to see what will come next.
Sorry to Bother You wears its weirdness for all to see, and yet you will still not be prepared for it.
Sorry to Bother You
Director: Boots Riley
Release Date: July 6, 2018
Capitalism has put Cassius “Cash” Green (the brilliant Lakeith Stanfield from Atlanta) in a funk. In his desperation, out of the threat of eviction from his uncle/landlord (Terry Crews) and the desire to prove his worth to his girlfriend Detroit (the aforementioned Tessa Thompson), Cash takes a telemarketing job at RegalView that soon changes his life forever.
You’ve undoubtedly heard of the “twist” of the premise for Boots Riley’s first film—with some advice from fellow telemarketer Langston (Danny Glover), Cash finds success when switching to his “white voice,” which in this movie is provided by David Cross. This act of the film comes across as twee, charming and quirky, like many a film you’d catch at a film festival. But this ultimately is all merely set-up for one of the more subversive films I’ve seen in recent years.
At this point, the film transitions into what feels like a Michel Gondry-directed surrealist comedy, with Boots Riley adding his own unique brand of scathing political satire. In the background of all of this is the company WorryFree, a company led by the morally dubious Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) that provides cheap labor in exchange for free “housing” for its workers. Cash continues to compromise his own beliefs to climb the ladder in RegalView, eventually working with a fellow black high-level telemarketer (Omari Hardwick, white voice provided by Patton Oswalt), and WorryFree and Lift eventually intertwine with Cash’s personal journey.
It’s a slightly dystopian look at our current society, with WorryFree exploiting labor and contending with an activist group accusing the company of slavery, and an in-universe television show literally called “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me!” As mentioned, this film has no subtlety to spare, but I remained (somewhat uncomfortably) gleeful watching the film, fascinated by this depiction of society where violence was seen as so casual, to the point where it is straight up entertainment for the masses. A key part of this film involves an injury that Cash sustains publicly, quickly resulting in a massive pop culture phenomenon.
Think of it as a modern day version of a 1980s or 90s Paul Verhoeven movie.
The esteemed cast is rounded out by The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun, who plays Squeeze, a fellow telemarketer at RegalView and somewhat of a serial labor union leader. Squeeze is known to have wandered from occupation to occupation, always starting a ruckus to help those he believes to be in need; but through some not-so-subtle clues, we see that some of his motivations might be a result of his insecurities.
There is a whole laundry list of political issues that Boots Riley brutally tackles in this film: race relations and perception, the exploitation of labor, activism, subversive art, the role of violence and sex in our society, etc. But it doesn’t necessarily take any deep analysis to figure out what the film is trying to say about any of them—it proudly wears its opinions on a bright and colorful t-shirt. You may laugh at much of what the film has to offer, but what it ultimately does is have you face the uncomfortable realities of the society that you occupy.
I have come to the part of the review where it is difficult to go on without giving away what other surprised this unpredictable film has to offer—all I can really hint at is the ever-changing tone of the film. If the set-up was a quirky indie comedy, and the second act a Michel Gondry-esque surreal experience, the final act of the film goes full-on Adult Swim sketch.
But I must stop here. I need to end by saying that what this film throws at you may, in fact, be too much. This is a film that may ask too much of you, depending on your tastes and preferences. It certainly challenged me, to the point where I’m actually docking a point for how jarring the film can be. But if you are willing to go along for the ride, as I learned to do, you will be witness to quite possibly one of the more creative and entertaining films in recent memory.