Written By: Daniel Kinsley
After sitting through the delightfully bonkers Sorry To Bother You (2018) this writer left the theater in a sort of haze, as if leaving a fever dream: “Did that really happen?” Activist-musician-cum-filmmaker Boots Riley’s debut film is an absurdist satire that is surreal, blisteringly angry, and above all, hilarious. It is an experience that really needs to be seen to be believed.
Set in an alternate version of present-day Oakland, the world of the film is a warped mirror-image of our own, where the most popular program on television is a reality show called “I Just Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me” (which is exactly what it sounds like) and mega-corporation WorryFree does battle with a radical protest group called Left Eye who believe the company’s lifetime contract practices are identical to slavery. In the midst of this, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a Kafkaesque protagonist in search of meaning in his life. Broke, twitchy, and living in his uncle’s garage, Cash scrapes by with the help of his artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson, continuing a hot streak that has been running since at least 2014). Cash soon lands a job as a telemarketer at RegalView alongside his friend Sal (Jermaine Fowler). At RegalView, the employees are reminded to S.T.T.S (Stick To The Script) and placated by management with the promise that if they can turn enough profit, they will go to the top floor to become Power Callers (“Where the callers are ballers”).
During Cash’s first calls on the job, his desk is literally dropped into the homes of the people he is calling, lending an urgent absurdity to his frantic attempts to connect with his customers. Stanfield, who mumbles as if he is in the midst of apologizing for merely existing, is hilarious and desperate in equal measure. When an older coworker (Danny Glover) suggests that if Cash wants to be more successful, he will need to adopt his white voice (“I’m not talking about Will Smith, that’s just talking proper“) to make more sales. The first time Cash adopts the suggestion might be jarring if you do not know what is coming, as the effect of his white voice is achieved by dubbing David Cross (Arrested Development, Mr. Show) over Stanfield. It is weird, no doubt, but also tremendously funny. As Cash utilizes his newfound skills, he is promoted to Power Caller, a position which puts him at odds with his co-workers, led by Squeeze (Steve Yeun) as they attempt to unionize.
Upon arriving at the Power Caller suite, Cash learns that RegalView’s biggest client is WorryFree, and is responsible for selling everything from weaponry to human labor on behalf of the conglomerate. As Cash’s star continues to rise, he finds himself living the high life, while also pushing him further away from his friends, and loved ones, particularly Detroit. While the ascension story may have some familiar beats, rest assured you have never seen it told quite like this. As the film goes on, it drifts further from reality, growing increasingly more surreal and bizarre, but also more urgent. Riley smartly never loses focus of the plot, and layers so many specific details that the world, no matter how weird, always feels lived in, and real.
Stanfield has been a reliably strange and magnetic player for the last several years; while he will likely be recognizable to most audiences from Get Out (2017), the twenty-six year old has been making a name for himself by stealing scenes in the likes of Dope (2015) and Atlanta (2016 – ) but Cash is the role that might just him a star. While Stanfield is the performer that anchors the film, moving from existential crisis, to arrogant triumph, to burgeoning revolutionary; the supporting players deserve just as much credit. Tessa Thompson is luminous and strange, rocking a variety of provocative earrings from scene to scene (MURDER MURDER MURDER & KILL KILL KILL, gold-plated electric chairs, glitter dipped penises), while Danny Glover nearly walks away with the film with less than ten minutes of screen time. Armie Hammer is the secret MVP who brings it all together, however, showing up late in the game as WorryFree CEO Steve Lift. Hammer manages to utilize an insanely weird performance to take the film even deeper down its strange, delightful rabbit hole.
In polarizing times, a film like Sorry To Bother You is an incendiary piece of satire, joining the ranks of stone classics like Network (1976) and Brazil (1985). While it may not be quite as palatable to mainstream audiences as a break-out hit like Get Out, it is every bit as essential. It is an irreverent and wholly unique vision that demands viewers get hip to the strange places it takes you in order to get the message. For this viewer, it was an easy leap to make. After all, these are strange times.