I have seen a couple of movies that needed time to digest this summer, and I consider that a good thing. If what I just saw defied my expectations so much to the point that I need to process it, then I know I just watched something that lacked predictability and familiarity. The first film that required such reflection was Hereditary. Now comes director Boots Riley’s social commentary comedy Sorry to Bother You.
Lakeith Stanfield (best known for yelling “get out!” in the film Get Out) stars as Cassius Green, a man living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage while trying to pull together bare minimum rent money at his new telemarketer job. Sitting in his drab, windowless cubicle with a headset, he experiences sales rejection every time until a colleague (Danny Glover) suggests that he uses his “white voice”. Glover emphasizes that Cassius can’t just settle for a nasally voice or Will Smith voice. He has to create the voice of a man who feels perfectly comfortable and secure with his wealth and lifestyle. Suddenly, like magic, he begins to speak in the voice of that worry free white guy (voiced by David Cross).
Once the voice takes hold, Cassius begins to experience success. He is moved up to the upstairs floor full of “power callers”, who sell indentured servitude rather than encyclopedias. He now works on behalf of corporation Worry Free, headed by CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). This is a company that entices average Americans with room and board in the form of tightly confined bunk beds and cafeteria food in exchange for a lifelong contract so that they can remain “worry free”. Once Cassius begins to penetrate Lift’s high-power circle, this is when Sorry to Bother You takes that unexpected turn in both plotline and genre.
Sorry to Bother You is a bit of a mess. Most of the time I say that to point out a movie’s faults. However, writer/director Boots Riley quickly establishes that the world itself is in disarray. Therefore, the use of abrupt transitions and plot shifts without warning begins to feel like the norm. In fact, Riley does a nice job of establishing this divided universe of haves and have nots without needing to be overly preachy. Take for example when Cassius and his friends pull up in front of a bar behind a sedan with a clothes line and a camper attached to it. Blink and you will miss moments like this, but there are many of these details painted into the background that make up this landscape of unbalanced chaos.
The film covers many bases of social satire including race, socioeconomic status, the 1 percenters, etc. However, director Riley presents a relaxed style in his storytelling, and anything truly goes. He takes the fantastical aspect of the “white guy voice” and he runs with it. But he certainly doesn’t stop there. Without presenting spoilers, Sorry to Bother You takes a major detour somewhere in the middle that changes the course of its storytelling. It is a change that the audience will love or hate depending on how open the viewer is to defying expectations.
Sorry to Bother You presents a terrific ensemble that gives everyone a chance to shine. Stanfield, in his first non-supporting role, makes a great anchor for the film. Whether his character is making right or wrong choices, it is difficult not to sympathize with his predicaments. Tessa Thompson, as his love interest, is also terrific as a starving artist who twirls signs to fund her absurd, performance art. Rounding out the ensemble are Danny Glover, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer (in full blown, evil CEO mode), and Omari Hardwick.
I appreciate familiarity in good summer blockbusters, but I also appreciate mind-blowing unpredictability. I expected wild satire from Sorry to Bother You, but I did not expect it to reach the level of hilarious chaos that it does. For anyone who appreciates smart commentary and genre-bending madness, I can’t recommend Sorry to Bother You enough.