Sometimes, the smartest dystopian fiction knows that you need to give the real world just a little tweak to make it scary. Sorry to Bother You mostly seems to understand this: The film is a funny, harsh satire of race relations, the gig economy, and gentrification set in an America in which the volume is turned up to 11. The story’s heightened reality works best when it’s barely distinguishable from our own—though it starts to lose steam the more it drifts into fantasy. The movie is at times a mess, but a compelling one, and this debut from Boots Riley should herald a fascinating filmmaking career.
As a member of the rap group the Coup, Riley has long made challenging political music, and Sorry to Bother You is a similarly confrontational work that rushes at every topical issue it can think of. The film perhaps tries to tackle too much in its 105-minute running time. But oddly that excess helps it feel all the more suited to the charged landscape of 2018, one where politics courses through so much of daily life. Riley is trying to confront the very ways we communicate with each other, the sometimes-blurry boundaries between race and class, and the increasingly overt malevolence of free-market capitalism—all within the confines of a raucous comedy. When Sorry to Bother You flops, it does so in mesmerizing fashion.
Our hero, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), or “Cash,” lives in his uncle’s garage in Oakland and is struggling to find a foothold in a society dominated by a conglomerate called Worry Free Living. Employees of Worry Free dress in jumpsuits, get free room and board (in shoebox apartments), and spend their whole lives doing menial work. Cash and his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), an activist-artist, cling to their independence but struggle to stay afloat, so Cash gets a job at a telemarketing firm called RegalView to try and make ends meet.
The film’s first big metatextual gag is the “white voice” that Cash adopts to rise through the ranks at his job; when he speaks on the phone to customers, the comedian David Cross’s voice comes out of his mouth, in a perverse, particularly surreal illustration of code-switching. Riley turns the dull art of cold-calling into a literal intrusion, visualizing Cash’s desk smashing through the ceilings of his customers, and turning his phone conversations into face-to-face confrontations. These little set pieces crackle with DIY wit as they paint a searingly silly vision of living paycheck to paycheck in America.
I appreciated the blunt-force satire of Sorry to Bother You’s first half, as Cash and his “white voice” rise through the ranks at RegalView and he gets promoted to the company’s luxury-branded top floor, where the cold calls target major conglomerates rather than people at home eating dinner. Cash’s central conflict is navigating the eternal trade-off between one’s success and one’s moral code—he lives extravagantly, but it’s a reward for fundamentally unfulfilling, potentially evil work. As his coworkers at RegalView try to unionize, Cash is caught between old friendships and loyalties to the bosses.
That’s when things go from trenchant to deeply weird. Cash begins working with RegalView’s top client, Worry Free, and draws the attention of its comically evil CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), whose plans for the future of the American workforce horrify in entirely unexpected ways. At this point, Riley is throwing concepts at the audience so thick and fast that he doesn’t really give himself time to reckon with his bigger ideas. Cash, played with laconic charm by Stanfield, is a relatable hero, but Detroit is ill-served by Riley’s script, existing primarily to explain the film’s heavier themes and scold her boyfriend for his ethical lapses.
Sorry to Bother You’s deliberate lack of panache is sometimes a huge strength, particularly in its most chilling set piece, in which Cash is asked to rap in front of Steve and his coterie of rich hangers-on. But when the film introduces its wildest plot twist, it lands flatly; your mileage may vary, but the broad metaphor Riley introduces about the fate of Worry Free’s employees is too thuddingly obvious and impersonal for me, shocking and ghastly for the sake of it. Still, the twist is also an admirable risk. Especially as the newest crop of homogenous summer blockbusters arrives, it’s hard not to appreciate a movie taking such bold narrative swings. As an unsubtle work for an unsubtle era, Sorry to Bother You deserves to be one of the season’s cult hits.