Look up “bonkers” in any good dictionary and the first entry should be Sorry to Bother You, the loony directorial debut from rapper Boots Riley (best known as frontman of political hip-hop group The Coup). It’s a live-wire comedy with a social conscience, a commentary on race, labor, and American capitalism that veers in so many directions that it’s best to just strap in and let it take you where it wants you to go.
Sorry to Bother You — which brought down the house at its Sundance premiere — is set in a near-future (or maybe alternate-future) Oakland, with only a few dystopic distinctions.
As with last year’s Get Out, the movie’s genius lies not so much in how it reflects reality but in how it interprets it. It’s about exploitation and profit, about the fetishization of black bodies and the indignities of code-switching, about giving up your dignity and trying to find love. Careening from office comedy to something like horror, Sorry to Bother You is weird and funny and unsettling, and not quite like anything I’ve seen before.
Sorry to Bother You is about a down-and-out Oaklander trying to get by
Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) — the character names in this film are intentionally on the nose — is an Oakland native living in the garage at his uncle’s house (Terry Crews) and struggling to get by, wondering if life really has any meaning at all or is just a pointless grind. His artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) twirls a sign on a street corner to make ends meet. Cash lands a job in telemarketing at a company called RegalView but is terrible at it, until a coworker named Langston (Danny Glover) tells him people will respond much better if he uses his “white voice.”
He’s right. Cash starts landing sale after sale, which means even when the telemarketers decide to unionize, led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun), he gets promoted up the ladder to become a “power caller.”
That’s more fraught than it sounds. The power callers are parceling out what the parent company WorryFree is selling.
WorryFree — led by erratic, charismatic, coke-snorting, cheerfully exploitative CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) — encourages people facing financial difficulty to sign a lifetime labor contract in which they’ll work for the company for the rest of their lives. In turn, they can stop worrying about things like rent and car payments; the company guarantees bunk-style housing and lousy-looking meals that WorryFree customers insist are delicious. In other words, it’s modern-day indentured labor.
Cash is desperate enough to sell out his organizing co-workers, crossing the picket line to go to his fancy new job. His job as a power caller is to help sell the labor that WorryFree is serving up, something he’s highly successful at thanks to his “white voice.” Before long he catches the eye of Lift, who has another role in mind for him.
Sorry to Bother You consciously borrows on the fantastical style of Michel Gondry to become something all its own
It would be pointless to describe the rest of the plot, because a lot of the joy of the film comes from the element of surprise. Sorry to Bother You deliberately runs off its rails and then out of the railyard entirely. There are giant horse-men (with prominent genitalia), crazy parties, and a wildly popular TV game show called I Got The Shit Kicked Out of Me, in which contestants go on TV to get beat up for millions of viewers. If you’re looking for narrative cohesion in Sorry to Bother You, you’ve come to the wrong place.
That does mean that some of the film’s more biting satirical threads start to drop off as it spirals out of control — but that’s on purpose. Riley’s style owes much to Michel Gondry (he sneaks a Gondry joke into the film), whose weirder films like The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind have a kind of magical realism that pushes the audience out of its comfort zone and unsettles expectations.
As in Gondry’s films, Sorry to Bother You’s aesthetic is rough around the edges. Instead of relying on CGI and similar techniques to render fantastical effects, Riley employs stop-motion and surreal elements — Cash’s “white voice” is the dubbed voice of David Cross — to make the whole thing feel exhilaratingly on the edge of falling apart.
Early in the film, when Cash starts telemarketing, he doesn’t just talk to them on the phone; his desk actually drops into the living space of the people he’s calling. And TVs in the background of scenes make subtexts into text, playing chipper ads for WorryFree and episodes of I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me, the game show that mirrors our penchant for watching people make fools of themselves for attention, but without any of the sugarcoating.
WorryFree also evokes some familiar practices— labor in for-profit prisons and the endless cycle of debt that keeps people in poverty — that may feel ripped from a dystopian novel, but are just one tick away from plausible.
You might feel a little bit crazy by the end, and several scenes are calculated to evince hollering and cringing. The stellar, nearly all-black cast (particularly Stanfield and a luminous Thompson) deliver performances that are somehow weighty amid the madness, and most of the movie is paced almost like a music video.
With so many competing tonal and thematic elements, its unsurprising that sometimes Sorry to Bother You doesn’t quite come together — but Riley is swinging for the fences here, with a clear vision of what he’s after, and on the whole, he succeeds tremendously. It’s a fantastical, weird, funny, devastating movie, and it proves Riley is a director worth watching.
Sorry to Bother You premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opens in theaters on July 6.