Film Review: Sorry to Bother You

Boots Riley’s nonstop crazy, relentlessly entertaining sociopolitical satire scores big laughs and provokes with its original dystopian tale.
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There is outrageous, and then there is first-time director Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, a razor-sharp sociopolitical satire that premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival over the weekend. A film of mounting artistic imagination, Sorry to Bother You spirals into a type of mind-bending madness that is both persistently fun and one-of-a-kind. Though they would be apt comparisons, likening Riley’s film to a Michel Gondry movie or Being John Malkovich won’t get you anywhere near its vicinity, especially once a massive half-man/half-horse penis shows up on the screen (I swear, I am not making this up). And that’s not even the craziest image that appears in this psychedelic takedown of capitalism.

Sorry to Bother You follows struggling, success-hungry Oakland dweller Cassius Green (a wide-eyed, spot-on Lakeith Stanfield), who lives in a sparse garage-turned-apartment with his activist/artist girlfriend Detroit (an artfully costumed, colorfully tressed Tessa Thompson, at her most charismatic.) Severely behind on his payments but not short on ambition, Cassius scores a seemingly dead-end job as a telemarketer, even though he completely fails at the job interview by any normal professional standards. It’s a hilarious scene that spells out his new employer’s questionable values early on. Spending his days unsuccessfully trying to sell pointless stuff to people already drowning in superfluous possessions—in a series of visually ambitious scenes that literally drop him in the living rooms of call recipients—Cassius one day gets schooled by a veteran co-worker (Danny Glover). He advises Cassius to “use his white voice, but not ‘Will Smith’ white voice” during his cold calls in order to sound more palatable to white people. (Side note: This was a screening attended by Jada Pinkett Smith.)

And so begins his rapid climb up the corporate ladder. Cassius’ white voice (by David Cross) proves to be the secret to his success, which eventually gets him noticed by the corporation’s big boss, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, irresistibly funny as a coke-snorting, abominable villain.) It doesn’t take long for Cassius to get used to the comforts of his newfound success. He moves into a luxurious yet cookie-cutter apartment (once again, Riley uses inventive filmmaking techniques to visualize this upgrade) and alienates both Detroit and his former co-workers, who are unionizing against and protesting Lift’s ruthless company, WorryFree. This clash eventually escalates to dystopian proportions, unmasking WorryFree’s grand plan of mutating humans with horses, to eventually use them as productive slave labor.

Sorry to Bother You is jam-packed with metaphors and overflowing with ideas. At times, the film will throw random statements on the wall to see what will stick and it gets a bit overwhelming. But miraculously, many of Riley’s grand notions land with a loud bang; this provocative film never stops challenging, agitating and entertaining. In the end, Sorry to Bother You—like Get Out and Dear White People before it—carves out a unique, well-earned spot in today’s urgent discourse around race and social class amidst real-life worries and frightening politics.

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