Sorry to Bother You is a bonkers movie.
At once an energetic comedy, biting satire, chilling horror movie, and poignant drama, Sorry to Bother You cuts to the core of American politics and does so with wit and style.
Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is jobless, broke, and living in his uncle’s garage. Desperate to make money and earn credibility, Cash applies for a job at telemarketing agency Regal View. He struggles at first, frustrated and saddened by the messy lives of his contacts. But, after a coworker advises Cash to use his white voice — which in Cash’s case is a care-free falsetto courtesy of David Cross — he sky-rockets to the top of the corporate ladder. Even as the world collapses around him, Cash relishes his newfound success, buying new cars, clothes, and apartments. But when he meets billionaire Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the horrors he experiences inspire Cash to fight the system with the help of his politically charged girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and his coworker Squeeze (Steven Yeun).
On the surface Sorry to Bother You is a standard success story; Cash starts with nothing, gets rich quick, and finds a purpose in the process. But there is nothing typical about Boots Riley’s American satire.
Sorry to Bother You is a powerful piece of social commentary, but it’s an equally compelling movie. On the quest to enlighten American audiences Riley didn’t sacrifice quality filmmaking (a pitfall that many would-be social critics succumb to). Throughout its 105 minute runtime Riley maintains a nauseating, dreamlike rhythm: scenes fade into one another, characters interact in a hazy, detached manner, and everyone seems to dress like cartoon versions of themselves. The film exists in a warped world — a candy-coated, catastrophic version of our own. When Cash channel surfs, he only seems to find three things: (1) news channels blandly describing riots and scenes of economic injustice (2) a reality show in which “people get the shit kicked out of them” for entertainment (3) mocking misappropriations of socio-political disasters. There’s a Lynchian surreality to the glib and gleeful way tertiary characters embrace the vile world they live in; it’s not only unpleasant, but also distressingly real.
Riley’s cinematic stylings peak with Cash’s phone calls at Regal View. To represent the intrusive nature of Cash’s telemarketing job, Cash crashes through the walls, ceiling, or floor of whoever he’s calling. It lends each interaction an uncomfortable, intimate, and occasionally funny feeling. After Cash adopts his white voice, his sales calls become more relaxed, less intrusive — the people he’s speaking to actually want to talk to him. Instead of the careening into his clients’ homes and apartments, Cash simply appears: quietly, peacefully, ready to make a sale. It’s a juxtaposition that exemplifies the racial divide Riley so heavily focuses on; to be white in his world is to have opportunity without struggle.
Stanfield plays the straight man in a wild world. He doesn’t have the vivacious energy of Thompson’s Detroit or the confidence of Yeun’s Squeeze, but he infuses a grounded uncertainty into everything Cash does. Even as Cash ascends the corporate ladder, popping champagne and going to wild, drug-fueled parties, there’s still an air of tragedy and doubt in him. Equally compelling are Cash’s exuberant business calls; he’s wearing a mask when he dons his white voice and Stanfield makes that persona both funny, and vulnerable.
Thompson’s Detroit too stands out. Sign twirler by day and artist by night, she embodies an easy confidence that opposes Cash’s doubt — she is everything he isn’t. Thompson takes her eccentric character in stride. Never too silly or serious, she rides the line between free spirit and socially-conscious crusader. Her costume design is as eccentric as her character, a blend of punk, grunge, and glitter that look more like a super hero’s costume than typical day wear. But Detroit’s bizarre fashion doesn’t feel out of place in Sorry to Bother You; it feels as natural and confident as she does.
Hammer also leans into his role as the drug addled, amoral billionaire, Steve Lift. Even as he explains his insane corporate plans, Hammer maintains an even tone that juxtaposes his twisted speech. Lift’s blunt refusal to acknowledge his flaws and Hammer’s straight-faced acceptance of the film’s more bizarre turns makes Hammer’s scenes some of the film’s funniest.
A thread of the strange and macabre runs throughout Sorry to Bother You, but it isn’t until the third act that Riley cranks the quirk up to eleven. A late reveal about Lift’s company is one of the most wild, unexpected moments in recent-movie memory. Both horrific and hilarious, it changes the direction of the film and Cash’s life. Even in that absurd moment, Riley still delivers a scathing commentary: an extreme look at the dehumanization of laborers and the lengths corporations will go to make an extra couple bucks.
Riley also homes in on the expectations society places on Black Americans. Until the very end of the film, Cash isn’t the master of his own destiny. At Regal View he erases his blackness to placate his customers, which enables him to climb the ranks and find success. But, at the top in the presence of Steve Lift, Cash is no freer. In an uneasy scene in Lift’s mansion, Cash is harassed into telling stories about “busting a cap in someone’s ass” and encouraged to rap; his blackness is commodified, packaged, and made into a game for the people in Riley’s world to enjoy. Even Detroit, whose steadfast resistance to authority defines her character, caves to the expectations of her clientele. Despite chastising Cash for using his white voice at work, Detroit puts on a similar affectation to appease potential buyers at her art gallery. It’s a sour moment that isn’t directly addressed: an acknowledgement that even the fiercest fighters are still chained to white demands.
Though often humorous and visually dazzling, Sorry to Bother You is an unpleasant experience. Much like a cake that’s gone bad, beneath the sweetness is something rotten and unavoidable, something crawling with maggots. Emerging from the theater, you’ll feel giddy and embarrassed, like you’ve just allowed someone to mock you. Riley’s assault on his audience isn’t cruel, but it is unflinching and direct.
Riley, in his debut film, has crafted something that is utterly bizarre and impossibly compelling; a scathing social commentary that doesn’t bother with apologies. Sorry to Bother You is a bold cinematic statement with a clear message and a wonderful weird streak.