by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Boots Riley
Cast: LaKeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick
My Rating: 6/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh
PLOT: In an alternate present-day version of Oakland, telemarketer Cassius Green discovers a magical key to professional success, propelling him into a universe of greed.
[Author’s Note: In my mind, it’s virtually impossible to discuss Sorry to Bother You without making comparisons to Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us. But I will give it the old college try…]
Boots Riley’s directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, has been described by Riley himself as an absurdist dark comedy combined with magical realism and science fiction. Talk about your genre mashups. While other directors have proven this kind of filmmaking is not only possible but profitable (Being John Malkovich , Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ), Riley’s film feels like he bit off a little more than he could chew. After it was over, instead of feeling like I had seen something groundbreaking and provocative, I felt like I had just sat through an ambitious student film. At some point, it lost its way.
Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) is an underachiever with an improbably gorgeous girlfriend named Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist who specializes in the kind of art that involves water balloons, spent bullet casings, and recitations from The Last Dragon (1985). All righty, then. Cassius is hired as a telemarketer at a company where the fact that he falsified his résumé and brought in fake trophies shows initiative. On his first day on the job, the film shows flashes of promise. As he makes the calls, his workstation magically drops into the homes of the people he’s calling, a perfect representation of the intrusion these callers make. After repeated failures, an old-timer named Langston (an underused Danny Glover) gives him a tip: Use your white voice. “I’m not talking about Will Smith-white. That’s just proper.” Now THAT’S funny.
So Cassius starts using a white voice (overdubbed by David Cross) on his calls, and wouldn’t you know it, he becomes the highest-selling telemarketer on the sales floor. This is not fantasy, as far as I’m concerned. I recently watched a documentary where a Latino man submitted hundreds of résumés while job hunting with no responses. In desperation, he changed his name on his résumé from “Jose” to “Joseph.” Presto…the calls started rolling in. True story.
Anyway, Cassius gets a promotion and is moved upstairs to be a “Power Caller.” Meanwhile, the other telemarketers organize and strike for better wages, so Cassius is derided as a scab every time he comes to work. But then he discovers what he’s actually selling as a Power Caller. It has something to do with a company called WorryFree, a system whereby workers sign a lifetime contract to live and work in a single communal location with no paychecks. One of their slogans is, “If you worked here, you’d be home now!”
WorryFree is run by Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer at his smarmy best. In the movie’s most pointed satirical moment, Lift invites Cassius to a party where he goads Cassius into rapping for his party guests. “Come on, you’re from Oakland, I refuse to believe you don’t know how to rap!” Cassius tries some feeble rhymes, and then he realizes exactly what Lift and his party guests want to hear. His solution is controversial, provocative, and hilarious. I won’t spoil it for you…it’s the high point of the film.
Meanwhile, there are other scenes involving the strike, the strikers, an underground movement called Left Eye, a Claymation sequence, horses, and a nearly-naked Detroit wearing a costume that looks inspired by Janet Jackson’s infamous Rolling Stone cover shoot. It’s all a little haphazard and cluttered and unfocused.
I believe this movie has a point. I think it comes closest to MAKING its point when it deals specifically with how the telemarketing company and Steve Lift plan to transform their workforce to increase profits, and with how Cassius deals with the conflict between his steadily increasing paychecks and his moral conscience. But in between those scenes are myriad other plotlines and side notes that were merely distracting rather than world-building. (For example, did we really need those scenes where Detroit may or may not get involved with another man? Was it necessary for Steve Lift’s party to devolve into an Eyes Wide Shut situation? And in the name of M. Night Shyamalan…was that ending really necessary?)
Sorry to Bother You seems to have struck a chord with many viewers. I am not one of them. After it was over, I found it impossible not to compare it to other recent films like Get Out, Us, or even BlacKkKlansman. Those films found their through lines, made their points, AND were also massively entertaining. Sorry to Bother You feels like it fell short of the finish line with those goals in sight.