Boots Riley has asked critics not to spoil his movie, so this is me telling you that I won’t. But if you want to experience Sorry to Bother You in all its glory, I would recommend coming back to this review (and others) after your first go-round.
In a quieter moment within the off-the-wall final act of Sorry to Bother You, artist Detroit (Tessa Thompson) stares up at a giant, vulgar statue, erected haphazardly in the night, that shows sarong-wearing CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) fucking an animal. The statue is lovely in its awfulness, with comically inaccurate proportions and a flimsiness that suggests it might be made of papier-mache. As a crowd gathers to admire the monstrosity, one woman asks, “But what does it mean?” To which Detroit responds, “Maybe the artist is being literal.”
While nothing more than a small, satisfying in-joke in the context of the onscreen action, this line is the closest Sorry to Bother You gets to a thesis statement. Like the protest statue, the film is loud, declarative and unsubtle, delightfully surreal yet demanding to be seen for what it is—and like Detroit suggests, that might just be the point.
Boots Riley, a lifelong activist whose music has always cut across the bullshit and tackled capitalist American imperialism, racism and exploitation head-on, was never going to make a small, bottled-up movie. Bursting at the seams with creativity and vision, Sorry to Bother You apologizes for nothing, skewering a dystopian America that’s about a step and a half away from our own, while illuminating the transformative potential of community action and organized resistance. Perhaps just as critically, the film is funny, terrifying and mind-boggling in equal measure, surrounding a radical yet clear call-to-action in a package too entertaining to pass up.
Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green, a bright but underachieving Oakland native looking for a job—any job—that will pay him a decent wage. If he doesn’t find one? His uncle’s house will be foreclosed on, putting the family (and Cassius’ radical artist girlfriend Detroit) out on the streets. His prayers are answered by a telemarketing company full of weasley managers who will hire just about anyone, including Cassius, his friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) and the smooth-talking Squeeze (Steven Yeun), an organizer calling for a telemarketers union. With the help of his veteran coworker Langston (Danny Glover), Cassius learns how to harness his magical-seeming “white voice” (dubbed by David Cross) to get ahead in the business—way ahead.
The secret to the white voice, says Langston, is to pretend that you’re totally “worry-free,” a phrase that gets amplified and transmuted throughout the movie into the name Worry Free, a contract labor company run by the cocaine-snorting Steve Lift (Hammer). The Amazon of human capital, Worry Free provides glammed-up prison cell housing, food, and life’s necessities to those who sign their lives away to work—freedom from worry to some, barely-glorified slavery to others. As Cassius soars through the ranks and reaches “Super Caller” status, he discovers a world of corporate greed and villainy tied to Worry Free that’s much grander and weirder than anything he and his comrades could have ever imagined.
There’s no denying that Sorry to Bother You gets in your face. Everything about its visual style, from its ostentatious dissolves and transitions, to its whip-like camera work, is noteworthy. The independent creative of the film, Detroit has a style that’s just as bold and handicraft, and the camera hovers admiringly on her rotation of statement pieces—a shirt that says “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE EJACULATION,” a bra and underwear set made to look like hands, massive glitter penis earrings “she made herself,” and the essential “MURDER MURDER MURDER KILL KILL KILL” earrings (some of these items are already selling out on the film’s merch website, a deeply ironic pairing for an anti-capitalist movie). This over-the-topness also finds itself in the film’s crude claymation interludes, rough and retro special effects work straight out of a ‘70s horror flick, and bizarre “white voice” dubbing that never ceases to be jarring.
While films with this much style often lose their way amid all the chaos and statement-making (ahem, mother!), Sorry to Bother You is telling a simple, straightforward story at heart with a script that grounds the film in some convention and real pathos. The villains are cartoonishly greedy, the good guys hip and kind and brotherly, and Cassius must grapple with a question as old as time: Do I look out for myself or others? Of course, the film asks more focused, nuanced questions about the significance of black wealth and success in an exploitative capitalist system, but altogether the story is only radical in its departure from the American political status quo. The romantic arc between Cassius and Detroit is as predictable as that of the last rom-com you saw, although Detroit’s independence as a character (and Thompson’s entrancing performance) is a refreshing change of pace.
Some of the film’s jokes get drawn out to absurd, tiresome lengths, including the odd “Smile, bitch!” video for which Cassius goes viral, but this fatigue seems intentional, yet another criticism of American culture and the death of all things good and funny through corporatization and mass production. Two steps ahead of us, Boots Riley has spent his life thinking about these themes and finally secured the budget to explore them on screen. If you need a quick pitch like Riley did to sell the movie: Sorry to Bother You is the lurid, screwball child of Do the Right Thing and The Twilight Zone that encapsulates the very moment we’re in today—what are you waiting for?