Directed by Boots Riley
Sorry to Bother You satirizes our own world by constructing one of its own, not unlike those of Terry Gilliam’s movies, most notably Brazil. There is a lot going on here, from the commentary on race (adopting white traits to get ahead in the world) to the commentary on Silicon Valley CEOs and the general soul sucking nature of telemarketing work.
That director Boots Riley wraps this all up in a cohesive manner is impressive on its own. Beyond that the film can be very funny (the windshield wiper scene), very human (Cash & Detroit’s relationship) and very, very surreal (both in editing and in more literal aspects to the story’s third act). It’s new, vibrant and fully realized, but most of the thrills come in the first thirty minutes, and the movie’s appeal wore thin as the story built to a conventional climax.
The ending wasn’t bizarre enough for the rest of the movie, in my mind. There is so much going on, so much to be excited about, but once the surface-level imagery becomes normalized, the heart of the story just felt a little underwhelming.
And yet I feel weird writing that, because there is a heart to this story, to main character Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) and to his struggle. There are wonderfully tender moments between him and Detroit (Tessa Thompson) as well as between unionizing coworkers Salvador and Squeeze (Jermaine Fowler, Steven Yeun). Cash wants more than to live paycheck to paycheck, his coworkers want more money from their marketing company, and Detroit is relatively content, getting by with her own artwork.
Cash quickly finds himself in no man’s land, stuck between the loyalties to his friends and job success that sends him to the top of the corporate ladder, another one of the rumored “power callers.” There he sells his soul, to some degree, to start pushing a slavery-like program called WorryFree.
It’s a good story, with understandable conflict, but I had a hard time latching onto the narrative because Cash’s motivations feel so whimsical. He explains that he wants his life to mean something, and he finds that temporary salvation through his telemarketing job. This alienates him from his friends, and long before Cash finds reason to jump the marketing ship, we see all the warning signs. When he does finally witness the horror underneath all he’s been doing, we’re just waiting for him to catch up to us.
At the same time, maybe that’s the point. Cash has dreams, but he sells out incredibly quickly because him being given this kind of opportunity might feel like a novelty. Cash has no misconceptions about his place in the world, culturally or economically, and he soon rises the ranks because of a masterful white voice (dubbed by David Cross). Cash rides the voice to the top, and soon he loses a lot more than just his friends. He only hangs on for as long as he does because he might not imagine another opportunity coming by anytime soon.
Sorry to Bother You builds to a disturbing, Tusk-like conclusion once Cash gets too close to the sun, in this case WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, playing some combination of Steve Jobs, the Uber CEO and maybe Elon Musk). Hammer is beyond deranged, and his insanity is matched by what he plans to do next with his company, with Cash has his puppet.
Lift’s plan is unexpected and perfect for this movie. It’s a bold new direction in a story that’s already taken several, and it should evoke a strong, visceral reaction from the audience. It’s in this reveal that the movie makes literal the type of absurd reality it suggests in style in the first act.
Early in the story, Riley exaggerates the crippling mundanity of Cash’s telemarketing job, thrusting us into his own frame of mind. It’s a creative manner to express a feeling that a more practical approach couldn’t capture. It’s later on with the reveal of Lift’s plan that the text matches the style in that surreality.
There should be more types of movies like these, in nature, tone and style. The world is alive, unsettling and still honest, while the central characters are more than just comic personas filling out the plot (though Fowler is there in a Kevin Hart type role). Still, the end was a little lackluster, conventional in a way this film didn’t seem like it needed to embrace.
Up Next: The Elephant Man (1980), Rich Hill (2014), Life (2017)