Sorry to Bother You Review
Sorry to Bother You, the directorial debut from Boots Riley, is an adrenaline-pumping comedy and a dissection of identity politics, corporate malevolence, and the American tendency to ignore horror and look the other way. In this clever satire, folks gather around their televisions every night to watch “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me” and embrace a lifestyle dubbed WorryFree, which is clearly corporate slavery repackaged as something good for you. There’s a lot to unpack here, in a film that recalls Michel Gondry (who even gets a slight winking nod in the third act), Terry Gilliam, and Jonathan Swift. Essentially, Sorry to Bother You is the story of a man forced to face the injustice around him. Riley’s film is laser-focused on doing the same to you.
With that said, Sorry to Bother You is not your typical heavy-handed social commentary. It’s a hysterical comedy, easily one of the funniest of the year. Riley’s film is dedicated, first and foremost, to entertaining you. And it definitely will, especially if you’re willing to go on a funky, wild journey with it, regardless of where it leads you.
Lakeith Stanfield does some of his best work in this film as Cassius “Cash” Green, a young man wondering what he’s doing with his life. Early on, we see him talking to his girlfriend Detroit (played by Tessa Thompson, who, at this point, improves anything she’s in) about the crisis one is faced with when contemplating their impact on the world. So many of us live paycheck to paycheck, barely scraping by, much less make a difference in the world. Cash wants to do something important.
His life takes a turn for the better when he gets a horrible telemarketing job with RegalView, a company that sells those worthless, leatherbound encyclopedias that gather dust on some people’s shelves. When he’s advised by his colleague Langston (Danny Glover) to use his “white voice,” Cash rockets up the corporate ladder. Eventually, he gets a promotion and access to the golden elevator taken only by the “power callers.” The people who work on the top floor only use the “white voice.” And they certainly aren’t selling books. They sell things that people shouldn’t be selling, and Cash excels at that too. Eventually, he draws the eye of WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), as well as the disdain of Detroit and his fellow co-workers, who are struggling to unionize for worker’s rights.
This is certainly not the first story of a man who sells his soul for success; those have been around since people put pen to paper. Riley, however, loads his Faustian epic with enough social commentary to fill a dozen comedies. This film is brimming with ideas and the vast majority work. Every scene works on multiple layers. Riley has managed to strike the perfect balance between biting commentary and absurd comedy, and that makes the screenplay truly special. It never loses sight of the necessity to entertain, but it also serves as a wake-up call to viewers to question their priorities, as well as those of people in power. Furthermore, Sorry to Bother You is cinematically striking, especially considering it’s a debut. Everything from the costume design to the visual flights of fancy is fantastic. For instance, Cash and Detroit’s garage apartment morphs as Cash earns more and more money; when Cash makes a call to a customer, his desk appears next to that person in their home. This film also takes a detour into stop-motion animation later on; this is where the aforementioned Gondry reference comes into play.
Truly great satires hold nothing back, and Riley pushes most of his choices as far as possible. Rather than having Stanfield mimic a “white voice,” he dubs Stanfield with the voice of David Cross. From the outset, he makes sure you know that this is an exaggerated, insane take on our world. That riskiness leads into a final act so crazy that it assuredly loses some people. In the theater, I could feel the audience’s attention waning as the film veered further and further into science-fiction territory.
If Sorry to Bother You loses any verve, it’s in the final 30 minutes. The hard turn into science-fiction will definitely not be for everyone; personally, I love it when a filmmaker holds nothing back and leaps right over the edge. So while the end may be the weakest part of Sorry to Bother You, I still respect Riley’s willingness to make that leap. This summer is brimming with films that feel like the product of focus groups and marketing teams, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Sorry to Bother You feels like the exact opposite–a pronouncement of a new major talent.