SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
R, 105 mins.
2018, R, 105 mins.
LaKeith Stanfield as Cassius 'Cash' Green / Tessa Thompson as Detroit / Steven Yeun as Squeeze / Armie Hammer as Steve Lift / Terry Crews as Sergio Green / Omari Hardwick as Mr. Blank / Patton Oswalt as Mr. Blank's white voice (voice) / Danny Glover as Langston / David Cross as Cassius Green's white voice (voice)
Written and directed by Boots Riley
The new absurdist black comedy SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is one of the strangest films that I've ever seen. It's a work that - to its credit - defies basic genre classification. It's part social/cultural satire, part sci-fi parable, part broad workplace comedy, and part commentary piece about race, class, and capitalism run amok. The film marks the directorial debut of Boots Riley, the Bay area rapper turned filmmaker, and his first film positively brims with audacious and bizarre originality.
SORRY TO BOTHER
YOU is, as just mentioned, an exceptionally weird movie, perhaps almost too
weird at times to allow for mainstream consumption, not too mention
almost too weird for those with open minds that might have a hard time
swallowing some of the story's more late breaking narrative detours.
Nevertheless, Riley has crafted a fearlessly innovative, intrepidly
funny, and morbidly topically film that'll be hard to shake for most after
exiting the cinema.
The story is set
in a version of Oakland, California that could be best described as
somewhat dystopian, but not in the apocalyptic manner of the term.
We're introduced to the film's hapless protagonist Cassius Green (Lakeith
Stanfield), who's so pathetically down on his luck and penniless that he
lives in his uncle's garage. Realizing
that he has to pick himself up and prove his worth to his performance
artist girlfriend Detroit (THOR: RAGNAROK's Tessa Thomson), Cassius
decides to take a demeaning and low level job as a telemarketer to save
enough money to get them both their own home and a fighting chance at
happiness. The company he
works for is the amusingly named Regal View, and what he and his fellow
telemarketers actually peddle over the phone is not altogether specified
or unveiled. All that we know
is that, initially for Cassius, it's a job of soul crushing
day-to-day grind at Regal View is hellish, to say the least, but he's
given some kindly advice from one of his older and wiser coworkers (Danny
Glover) when he tells him to use a more inviting "white guy
voice" over the phone to lure in big game clients. Realizing that
this may be a last ditch Hail Mary effort on his part, Cassius agrees to
give it a try with his new white accent (which is actually dubbed in by
David Cross, which never emerges as unfunny throughout), and within no time
he realizes to his delight how well it works.
With a newfound pitch confidence, Cassius becomes an overnight
sales success and eventually rises to the upper echelon rank of
"power caller," which affords him the right to take a private
elevator to an upper floor where other high rolling salesman work, which
further affords Cassius opportunities to get cozy with high ranking
company CEO Steve Lift (a delightfully hammy Armie Hammer).
As Cassius becomes successful and wealthy, he learns about the
darker underbelly of Lift's company, which dabbles in slavery and weapons
dealing. Cassius then
even more nightmarish truth, which forces him to radically re-evaluate his
place within the company that gave him his livelihood.
SORRY TO BOTHER
YOU is exceptionally weird (did...did I say that already?).
There's a sort of free-wheeling and never-look-back tenacity of
spirit and tone here of the films of Terry Gilliam cross morphed with the
slapstick office based comedies of a Mike Judge.
Adding to the film's already eclectic mixture is the stylistic
trappings of a Michel Gondry and you'll start to get a better idea of Riley's peculiar world here. His
Oakland, for example, is basically from our plane of existence, but the
society built around it seems almost more unhealthily fixated on, for
example, horrendous diets of bad reality TV shows like "I Got the
Shit Kicked Out of Me" (which, yes, is exactly as advertised).
Then there is the whole popular nature of WorryFree, which passes
itself off as a congenial minded corporation that's only out to make life
better for citizens, even when it becomes abundantly clear that slavery
(and...other diabolical experiments) are the norm for their day-to-day
Riley is also a
gifted visualist here, and SORRY TO BOTHER YOU has a distinctively
innovative sense of striking imagery that stands out and sets itself apart.
One recurring motif is showing Cassius literally crashing down on
the lives of the people he's trying to call while on the job, oftentimes
to hilarious effect. In one instance he "drops in" on a couple
having sex and in another with an elderly woman that's become mentally unraveled
with the news of her husband's terminal illness.
There's also a splendidly inspired transition as Cassius' garage
based apartment morphs before our eyes into a lavishly decorated condo
that reflects the character's financial assertion.
On a level of conceptual imagination, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU has a hypnotic and
surrealistic allure that works exceptionally well in its favor and Riley
seems always equal to the task of giving his film a distinct aesthetic
personality that's wholly its own.
As for its
satirical themes, the film also joyously swings for the fences, and even
when Riley sometimes doesn't hit home runs you just have to admire his willingness to simply go with
his underlining material.
On simple levels, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is a damming indictment of
workplace culture, especially those that demoralize employees to the point
of depression. The fact that
Cassius, a black man, has to use a white voice to get sales is
preposterous, but it also highlights what a maddening and exaggerated
world he (and perhaps we) live in. It's
also a sad testament to the lengths that Cassius will go to in order to
essentially sell his soul and sense of ethnic identity to become an
occupational success story. Then
there are the other themes of corporate greed and the deplorable levels
companies sink to in order to make an extra buck, which prompts Cassius
into a crisis of conscience when he begins to fully realize that he does
indeed work for a truly evil empire that has robbed him of an identity and
has destroyed other lives in the process.
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is scathingly hilarious throughout, but like
great works of satire its makes serious points about multiple social ills,
in its case regarding white power, fractured race relations, and selling one's
principles to get rich (while turning a blind eye to wrongdoing).
That, and SORRY
TO BOTHER YOU is exceptionally weird (did...did I say that already?).
I'm an accepting chap when it comes to daringly strange movies, but
there reaches a point in Riley's story (without going into wanton spoilers)
where it perhaps tries to skillfully navigate through too many characters,
too many subplots, and too many ideas for its own good, which culminates
in a frankly ape shit crazy third act that dabbles into pure fantasy,
one shocking plot twist that will undoubtedly alienate many a viewer.
During these late stages I felt that SORRY TO BOTHER YOU was going
for more cheap shock value than any further and thoughtful analysis of its
themes. There's a good case
to be made that the last third of Riley's movie implodes on itself by
being...well...too weird...and to off-putting effect.
Plus, the running time here does it no favors either, especially
when Riley's energized, shoot-from-the-hip style probably would have
worked better with some generous editorial trims here and there.
The early sections of SORRY TO BOTHER YOU have an explosive forward
momentum and drive, which are stymied by its scattershot focus later on.
Still, I'm hard pressed to name another razor sharp social satire quite like this one, and one that generates ample laughs and contains big ideas that amusingly - and unnervingly - speak to larger societal truths about the consumer world we live in. Watching SORRY TO BOTHER YOU I was frequently reminded of MANDY (also from this year), another work of brazen stylistic imagination that also took calculated risks and traversed down some insane plot turns that reveled in pure nonsensical make-believe. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is a bit too scattershot and ill focused at times, but it highlights a revitalizing filmmaking talent in Boots Riley as a potential force to be reckoned with moving forward. His film may be exceptionally weird (did...did I say that already), but it's admirable strange and doggedly avoids conventional classification, which is more than you can say for most films dominating multiplexes lately.