Stop. If you’re like me from two days ago and think that you have a pretty good idea about how Sorry to Bother You, Boot Riley’s unexpectedly original and entertaining directorial debut, is going to play out, you’re wrong. There’s absolutely, positively, 100% definitively no way you can guess what you’re going to see if you make the right decision to go out and watch this whacky adventure. Expectations and predictions are rendered useless, so the best way to receive Riley’s unusual offering of a film is to leave them at the door.
Written and directed by hip hop group The Coup’s frontman, the inventiveness of this world and the story inside of it will certainly blindside audiences. Though the basic premise involves a man being forced to finally see the immense injustice around him, there’s a Terry Gilliam-like sense of imagination at play here that’s very much welcome. Having premiered at Sundance earlier this year and now being released sandwiched between sequels, prequels and threequels, surprises like this are the reason we savor originality.
With that said, Sorry to Bother You is not a film that’s weird just for the sake of being weird. As a comedy, it’s outrageously hysterical, one of the funniest of the year; and going off the notion that no good satire is tame, this is quite a success. Don’t worry, if you haven’t figured it out by now, this is not your standard, message-filled social commentary. Riley’s first goal is to entertain you, which he will certainly do, especially if you just allow yourself to float along with his funky flow. Remember this, because when things really do take a borderline-perverted turn towards the end – and you’ll know when they do – you’ll just have to go with it.
Lakeith Stanfield (the man who delivered the titular “GET OUT” warning in last year’s most original film) does his best work here as Cassius ‘Cash’ Green, a young man not too sure about what he’s doing with his life. Based in Oakland, he’s broke, living in his uncle’s garage (Terry Crews) and paying for gas pennies at a time. An early conversation with Detroit (Tessa Thompson), his girlfriend, about unsatisfyingly living life paycheck to paycheck shows that he wants to do something big. And he certainly will.
The opportunity presents itself when he and his best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) land a job at RegalView, a slimy telemarketing firm. On top of being just a terrible place to work, selling useless items with an incompetent management team, a revolution led by a man named Squeeze (Steven Yeun) is brewing amongst the staff. But when he’s advised by Langston (an always pleasant Danny Glover) to use his “white voice” to make sales, Cash quickly climbs up the corporate ladder, eventually becoming a “power caller,” taking the gold elevator upstairs, and attracting the attention of entrepreneur Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). Those who work on the top floor – where the “white voice” is mandatory– are selling things that they really shouldn’t be, and with the position, Cassius is torn between the immorality and the salary.
Greed, intolerance and corruption have been central themes of literature as long as pen has been able to strike paper; and as the mystery of what Cash is selling becomes clearer, they show up as strong themes here as well. Even at the end of the film, once the horror of the situation is exposed, the people’s reactions are disgustingly inappropriate.
But what’s perhaps most intriguing about Sorry to Bother You is the sheer quantity of satire Riley’s able to pile into it, which is enough to fill many more movies. Whether he’s going after senseless television (a show called “I Got the Sh*t Kicked Out of Me” is a nationwide hit), or economical desperation (a new lifestyle called WorryFree, a form of corporate slavery advertised as something good for you), Riley compiles complex shots and scenes together that will certainly be the subject of many “what does it mean” debates.
But again, Sorry to Bother You is very easy to enjoy simply at face value. Driven by Stanfield’s performance, an intelligent story, and an even more impressive structure, this film is as funny as it is bizarre, and as bizarre as it is clever. It succeeds enough early on that Riley trusts he’ll hold everyone’s attention as he jumps off the deep end. He certainly earned my attention, but I would be remiss if I were to suggest everyone will have a similar experience.
Nothing can prepare you for Sorry to Bother You, a film so unique, intoxicating and bizarre that it not only demands another viewing, but is also forgivable as a satirical comedy where the jokes eventually take the back seat.