There has never been an American movie like Sorry To Bother You. Hell, I don’t think there’s ever been a film quite like Boots Riley’s breakout, at least not since Luis Buñuel died. For just like the famous surrealist, Riley has squeezed thousands of ideas and critiques into a 110-minute film, using surrealism and satire to put the entire system on notice. And while the film does bob at times under the weight of its own message, Riley’s writing and directing, as well as the energies of a highly capable cast, manage to create a wholly original, funny, brilliant film for the modern era.
Cassius “Cash” Clay (LaKeith Stanfield) has run out of options. Living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage and down to the literal last pennies to his name, Cash dreams of a better life for himself and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He soon gets a job as a telemarketer at a company called RegalView, selling encyclopedias and other useless trinkets. While he struggles at first, he is soon told that the best way for an African-American to succeed in the business is to use his “white voice” – to pass as white to convince the listener to talk with him. As it turns out, Cash has one of the best “white voices” around – hilariously provided by David Cross – and he becomes an instant success. However, his achievements put him at odds with Detroit and his friend Sal (Jermaine Fowler), who have joined revolutionary Squeeze (Steven Yeun) in an attempt to unionize RegalView, as well as contend with Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the CEO of a slavery-lite company called WorryFree. And folks, that’s just the first act.
I really don’t know how to begin analyzing this movie. There is so much squeezed in about every aspect of American life that it becomes insane. I guess the best place to start would be the themes of race, as they are the most obvious. And I don’t just mean the aesthetic, which from the top down is unapologetically black. I’m referring to the ways that the film explores what it’s like to be black in today’s “post-racial” society. Riley is interested in getting to the heart of what it’s like to be in a society that believes it has advanced beyond its past, and yet still looks at African-Americans as tools rather than individuals. Above all else, this can be seen in Cash’s struggles, as he tries to balance the success he finds with his role in the community. While the idea of a caring character willingly selling out his beliefs is not specific to any race or creed, it does carry a loaded weight when dealing with the black community, who have witnessed stars like O.J. and Will Smith (who is chided in the film for this very reason) stray from their roots in exchange for success. It’s also a scathing critique of society to watch as Cash’s career rises as he begins using his white voice, a commentary on the way society tends to ignore black people but will bend over backwards for white people. And there’s even something to be said about the way that white people perceive African-American culture, as can be seen when Cash, forced to freestyle rap for a sea of white faces, just starts chanting the n-word and sh*t over and over, which white people not only love, but SING ALONG WITH. In a time when suburban white kids predominantly use the complex works of Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West as an opportunity to spout the most offensive word in the English language consequence-free, the scene plays as both scathingly dark and bitingly hilarious. And I haven’t even touched on the slavery imagery on display from WorryFree, which is predominantly embodied in the character of Steve Lift. I will talk more about Lift below, but it is hard to get past the fact that when we first see Lift, he is seen on the cover of his self-help book in the exact same pose as the Birth of a Nation poster. And Lift’s insidious, subversive racism appears throughout, channeling the faux-wokeness of figureheads like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and especially the eternal prick Jack Dorsey. He delivers quietly racist lines from his first scene to last, most infamously informing a room full of his white colleagues that they could interact with Cash because, “He’s friendly,” as if he were a dog. It’s similar to the way Get Out used microaggressions as horror, but Sorry To Bother You feels like an entirely different beast.
Perhaps it feels this way because Riley is more interested in using race as an introduction to something deeper. I mean, even the white voice eventually ends up serving as a misdirect for the audience. No, Riley’s true vision for the film can be seen in his definition of “white voice” – “[White voice] is when your bills are paid, you have a future and a Ferrari, and you don’t need the money.” Riley isn’t just interested in exploring racism or the modern work force – he’s interested in taking on the system itself. Office life, how the world works, capitalism – you name it, he’s condemning it. From the grandiose to the minutia, Riley is deconstructing the very nature of our capitalistic society, utilizing both Horatian and Juvenalian satire to reveal his utter contempt for the world at large. I mean, one need look no further than the way he portrays the work force. Riley’s dissection goes beyond even the mock mundanity of Office Space and drives to the heart of exactly why the system is essentially ouroboros. The film drives straight to the heart of exactly how difficult it is to actually advance in the world, and why self-made millionaires are hard to come by. Everyone tells Cash from his very first day at RegalView that “If you work hard enough, you can move up in the industry.” However, this entire idea essentially amounts to a scam. As the lowest rung on the totem pole, Cash is expected to sell useless encyclopedias – something that people have little need for and would hardly register as a successful item. Only by rising in the industry can you earn the opportunity to handle items that would actually sell. Sorry To Bother You spends much of its time exploring the insanity of this request – the fact that, in this sort of capitalism, you can only become successful by moving up in the industry, which you can’t do if you aren’t successful. It’s a never-ending cycle that cannot sustain itself and those living inside its grasp. Meanwhile, as this struggle plays out, Riley peppers the script with little phrases and details that have begun to pop up inside the modern work force – phrases like:
“I’m not your boss, I’m your friend.”
“We’re not just a company; we’re family.”
“Don’t you want to be like Hal Jameson (or whichever figure is the hero of your industry)?”
And above all:
“Stick to the script.”
In doing so, the film condemns the modern myth that businesses have become more employee-friendly by treating them like friends and family, all while still denying them equal treatment.
Still, as f*cked up as RegalView may be, they get the easy treatment when compared to Riley’s treatment of WorryFree, his stand-in for Apple, Google, and Amazon. From its very introduction, it is clear that Riley views Big Business as slavery – he portrays it as a prison, has deceptive ads everywhere, and depicts a Congress and public that approve of their behavior despite its obvious moral shortcomings. Riley makes it clear that he believes that all these companies are cut from the same cloth, as anything and everything imaginable gets sold from their hallowed halls, from arms to cheap labor. And Riley doesn’t stop there; in fact, it’s amazing to see how many aspects of modern society he attacks as symptomatic of the bourgeoisie. He depicts television as devolving to the existence of two television shows battling it out for viewers: a Big Bang Theory/Fear Factor cross titled “I Got The Sh*t Kicked Out Of Me” and a late night talk show titled “Let’s Talk With Jimmy” (my favorite joke in the film). The media pretends its on the side of the people, but they constantly belittle and insult the protesters, and they just so happen to cut away before the police and military begin beating them mercilessly. And a throwaway joke about the VIP Room in a club packs a distinctive punch about the shallow non-benefits of the high life. All the while, Riley sneaks in commentary on human behavior – my favorite running joke is the fact that everyone in the film, whether they are businessmen or activists, is driven by their own sexual desires, as humans tend to only act the way they do in the interest of procreation. And underlying that is a message about the importance of a living wage, and how the threat of losing one’s livelihood and housing can eventually destroy a person’s soul. Now, as you can probably tell, all of this is way too much to unpack, and unfortunately it often results in Riley telling and not showing. It even causes the film’s second act to start to go stale. However, I do have to give the film credit: it has the foresight to know that just as the film gets too stale, and the audience begins looking at their watch thinking, “Where’s he going with this?” it’s time to take a HARD LEFT TURN. I won’t say much more than that, but I’ve never been more reinvigorated by a third act in film history. So even as the narrative gets away from the first time writer/director, I do commend him for making it feel cohesive and important throughout.
And while I’m on the subject of Boots Riley as a filmmaker, I want to take a moment to talk about the ways in which he peppers the film with visual treats, cementing himself as a satiric auteur. Riley has a keen eye on how this film is supposed to look, supposed to feel, and supposed to act. Yes, its aesthetic is stunning, and the way that Riley pushes and pulls the camera as if it had a mind of its own is groundbreaking, but I’m referring to something much deeper. I’m referring to the way the film consistently destroys the fourth wall, like when it drops the phone-dialing Cash into each and every room he calls. I’m sure watching Cash drop in on people in the bathroom or having sex (and KNOWING he’s getting dropped in) has some sort of deeper meaning, but I’d like to think Riley’s solely doing it for the dumb sight gag. I’m referring to way the film finds its own way to show settings morph and distort as time passes. And I’m referring to the way Cash’s conscience is manifested in the form of his father’s photo, which consistently changes with his moods in order to comfort or judge him. All of it works to physically represent Riley’s inner genius. He has full control over his visual and aural humor, no matter how ridiculous it may seem, from a character with a bleeped out name to an absurdly long code, from Detroit spinning signs for the Sign Company to Armie Hammer’s strange obsession with Claymation videos. It all comes together in a grand display of absurdity that would make both Buñuel and Eddie Murphy proud.
As for the cast, there are few weak links, from the top down. LaKeith Stanfield has been one of our best actors since 2013, and he carries this film with pride, whether he’s the straight man or the butt of the joke. Meanwhile, Tessa Thompson confirms that she is a queen, playing the radical Detroit with the level of panache we expect from her. One of the film’s finest moments comes when, as an act of protest, she adorns a grand stage where a black-gloved bikini and begins reciting a monologue from The Last Dragon as people throw things at her. Few actresses could make that scene work, and she is one of them. Amongst Cash’s group of friends, Terry Crews shows up on occasion to get in a few quips, while Jermaine Fowler steals the movie as Sal. Steven Yeun’s character is a symptom of the film’s overflowing ideas, and never fully works, but I appreciate how far Yeun goes to sell the jokes. And I want to give credit to the voices, all of which are portrayed by the whitest actors you can imagine: Patton Oswalt, Lily James, a Steve Buscemi sound-alike, and above all, a phenomenal turn by David Cross. However, if there’s one actor I want to shout out here, it’s Armie Hammer. Hammer has given us a litany of great roles, from The Social Network to Call Me By Your Name, but he has truly never been better than he is right here, playing the most spot-on Silicon Valley douchebag you could possibly imagine. From the minute he enters the film doing the biggest line of coke you’ve ever seen, I was in love. This is what I want from Hammer for all of eternity, and he is a joy whenever he shows up onscreen.
I still have so much to say about Sorry To Bother You. Hell, a part of me wants to just keep going and shove all my thoughts into this one review; I’m sure that’s what Riley would have wanted. However, for brevity’s sake, I’ll leave you with this: Sorry To Bother You is alive and kinetic, from beginning to end. There may be a few too many ideas here for one narrative film, and it can lose track of the tempo from time to time, but it always manages to ratchet itself back up to an eleven. I respect a film that can do that, and even if the film isn’t a home run, it still manages to be a roaring success – thematically, technically, and entertainingly.