Film Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018) DIR. Boots Riley
By Belle McIntyre
This film was full of delicious surprises for me. Beginning with the first time writer/director Boots Riley, who comes from the worlds of hip-hop (writer/vocalist), theatre and political activism. He brings all of these together in this wacky, pitch black comedy/satire/sci-fi film which skewers income inequality, racism and classism. The leading man, Cassius “Cash” Green is played by the immensely appealing and emotionally agile Lakeith Stanfield, who you may remember for a small but memorable scene from the film ‘Get Out’, with which this film can be favorably compared.
Cash Green is young, struggling and in need of a job in Oakland, California where he lives with his girlfriend, Detroit, (Tessa Thompson) in his uncle’s garage. Tessa, who is totally adorable with weirdly-colored ringlets, is an artist/political activist who works at a minimum wage job, flipping signs by the side of the road. When Cash gets a job at a cheesy telemarketing company called RegalView, where orientation as delivered by Diana DeBauchery (Kate Berlin), who vaguely resembles a dominatrix, consists of tips and quips like “Stick to the script” and the opening line “Sorry to bother you”. There are some very funny workplace motivational scenes from supervisors to the basement level commission-only callers who are encouraged to excel and aspire to the upstairs level as ‘power callers’ where they will receive salaries and perks.
Cash, who is basically a good guy finds this pretty distasteful work and does not perform well until he receives a piece of life-altering advice from a fellow co-worker (Danny Glover), who tells him to find his “white voice” and explains that he must try to sound entitled to make it really convincing. When Cash finds his “white voice” he rockets to success and is soon moved upstairs to work with the ‘power callers’, where he is paid very well and gets lots of perks, rents a cool apartment, buys a cool car and wears great threads. He becomes such a star that he comes to the attention of one of RegalView’s biggest clients, “Worry Free” who wants to hire him to work only for them. It seems that his success has replaced his humanity and allows him to ignore the truth of the exploitation of all of his former co-workers in the basement who are trying to form a union by striking against RegalView.
As Cash’s success turns his head away from one inconvenient truth it also opens his eyes to a larger and far more bizarre and frightening reality happening under the legitimate-seeming guise of a utopian option for the disenfranchised. The ‘Worry Free’ lifestyle conceived by the visionary entrepreneur/billionaire, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), has captured the imagination of the whole world. Steve Lift is practically a cult icon publicly. Privately, a raging cocaine-using, exploiter of women personally, and an abuser of his initiates on an industrial level. And here is where the film veers into the realm of surreal sci-fi paranoia. As Cash gets close to being subsumed by the Steve Lift charisma and the lure of riches beyond imagining, he stumbles onto some really creepy experiments and protocols (think The Lobster, Shape of Water). The revelations reach a fever pitch and Cash’s balloon is burst. There is a real Coney Island roller coaster feel in the rhythm of this film. And just like those rides, when they are over there is usually something of an anti-climax. Hard to know exactly what we are supposed to take away from the film as message. But it is well worth the trip.
The cast is all good and it is directed at a brisk pace with a jaunty musical score, much by Mr. Riley. It was a Sundance favorite deservedly so. It feels genuine, smart and funny. Nothing to be ‘sorry’ about. It’s a blast.