Sorry to Bother You is the most audaciously smart film you’ll see all year


The directorial debut of Boots Riley is an in-your-face, loud and shocking feature that explores the surrealistic America of our nightmares.

Like the political cartoon, the Hollywood movie can reflect our inner anxieties, fears, and frustrations with the world at large. Movies can champion the underdog or criticize our government, but the point remains the same: all film, like any art, is political, and to say otherwise is ridiculous.

Movies are part of the dialectic that fuel our culture that fuel our movies. All of this is understood by director Boots Riley, whose debut feature, Sorry to Bother You, is a surrealistic exposé of our country writ large. At times manic, provocative, and hilarious, it’s doubtful you’ll find any movie more memorable out this year than Sorry to Bother You.

The film follows Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a slacker so desperate for a job he crafts fake awards and trophies to look impressive to potential employers. He wrangles a job at the telemarketing firm, RegalView, purely because he shows “initiative” and “can read.” The goal of his job is sticking to the script, but it doesn’t seem to be working for Cash.

As he literally drops in on people having sex or grieving over the loss of loved ones, he’s supposed to sell — dubbed “bag and tag” by his superiors — in the hopes of becoming a “Power Caller.” Things change when Cash discovers his gift, the ability to speak in his “white man voice” (hilariously dubbed by David Cross), aiding in his quick ascent up the ranks at RegalView.

Set in and around Oakland, California, Riley’s film is about more than just a racial examination of how acting white plays into the African-American experience. There’s also discussion about the benefits of collective bargaining as Cash gets involved with the other telemarketers of RegalView who want a living wage and take to unionizing; as well as deconstruction on the nature of art and its sale to the uber-wealthy, embodied by Cash’s activist girlfriend, Detroit (proudly played by Tessa Thompson). All of this revolves around Riley’s hyper-realistic depiction of Oakland itself, where tent cities run rampant before giving way to big corporate high-rises.

But much of Riley’s rancor, or at least interest, is in the world of group living arrangements. As Cash rises up the ranks at RegalView he’s continually distracted by ads and mentions of another company, WorryFree, run by coked-out CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). The company promotes a way of living not unlike the lumber towns of the early-1900s or, more recently, the announcement of Google Campus. The theory is that companies provide housing and other town amenities as part of your salary. In Riley’s world, protesters see this as a form of slavery. Cash’s uncle, Sergio (Terry Crews) draws comparisons to prison life with its “three hots and a cot” mentality.

For Riley, all of these disparate threads are related, leading to a world that is utterly crazy yet, sadly, remarkably familiar. The movie becomes nothing short of an experience. A phantasmagoria with shades of Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange and George Orwell’s 1984 thrown in for good measure. By the time the third act rolls around things have become completely bonkers, but it’s believable because Riley creates a world just similar enough to our own that the stretch seems plausible.

Without the cast being willing to do whatever is necessary this movie wouldn’t work. Lakeith Stanfield’s performance as Cash is a far cry from his work on Atlanta, and yet there are commonalities between the two. Think of Sorry to Bother You as the “Teddy Perkins” episode of Atlanta on steroids. Stanfield’s Cash goes from desperate man just looking to make some money, to an angry consumer who feels he needs more to show for the hard work he’s put in.

As he becomes more enmeshed with things he doesn’t believe in, there’s only so much Stanfield’s face can’t hide. When he’s promoted during a company-wide strike, tears develop in Stanfield’s eyes. Is he crying from pride? From shame? Both? The fact is the actor shows us the myriad emotions that play into every decision Cassius makes.

Stanfield’s complimented by one of the strongest supporting casts of the year. Tessa Thompson’s Detroit could have had a bit more to do aside from being Cassius’ moral compass. She does have personality, which she wears as proudly as the massive earrings that should become a staple of everyone’s wardrobe soon. Detroit is a doer, one willing to do the hard stuff in order to get acclaim. When her performance is finally revealed it’s a blend of the dehumanizing and the amazing in one. Thompson slays no matter what, and Detroit is a character who blows up a role that could have been insignificant.

Steven Yeun and Jermaine Fowler are also captivating as Cash’s associates at RegalView. Yeun is great as the leader of the striking RegalView workers while Fowler backs him up with phrases that might not be the classiest slogans, but they make an impact. They’re a comedic duo you’ll want to see more from.

And as for Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift… it’s a performance that I hate to spoil at all. Lift is a combination of Elon Musk, Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman in a sarong. He’s utterly entrancing because you’re fairly certain the character is insane or a true believer in his own hype.

To reveal much about the plot is to rob Sorry to Bother You of its power to shock and astound. Make no mistake, things happen in this movie that you’ve never seen in film, and if you have, I wonder what you watch during the day.

All of it has significance and meaning, and sometimes more than one interpretation. Suffice it to say there are scenes in this movie that are blackly comic and starkly terrifying in their metaphors. The film makes a home in your brain and the only cure is to see it again.

If this is how Boots Riley sees the future forming, we should fear for our lives.

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Sorry to Bother You in theaters now.