The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival.
Sorry to Bother You wants to fuck with you. What begins as a light, absurdist comedy turns into a cutting satire of race within corporate America that then veers into the realm of sci-fi and horror before hammering home the metaphorical nature of everything you’ve just seen. It’s a mess, but a glorious one, the kind of ambitious, unapologetic project that’s most notable for its perspective. Director Boots Riley, frontman of hip-hop group The Coup, channels Gregg Araki’s grotesquerie and Charlie Kaufman’s absurdity through the lens of underemployed twentysomething Cassius Green (Atlanta‘s Lakeith Stanfield), who opens the film at a telemarketing job interview with an Employee of the Month plaque clutched to his chest. It isn’t long, however, until Cassius is swept up in a union protest, a viral nightmare, and a conspiracy to turn the proletariat into horses. Yes, this movie will fuck with you.
Cassius’ descent into madness is a deliberate one, with the film’s sunny, Oakland milieu serving as a welcoming stage for the introduction of its supporting players: Cassius’ performance artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), goofy pal Sal (Jermaine Fowler), and level-headed colleague Squeeze (Steven Yeun). Cassius is as bad as any telemarketer at first, but, with the help of aging co-worker Langston (Danny Glover), discovers his secret weapon: A “white voice” that transforms him into the firm’s rising star. Soon, he’s moved upstairs, where he rubs shoulders with a slimy, coke-snorting mogul played by Armie Hammer and compromises his values by literally selling slaves. This doesn’t sit well with Sal and Squeeze, who are fighting to establish a union for the telemarketers, but, as is often the case with these rags-to-riches narratives, the promise of financial comfort is, at first, just too damn enticing.
It’s a familiar story, sure, but rendered fresh via Riley’s carnivalesque vision. Instead of having Stanfield channel Dave Chappelle or Richard Pryor’s signature white affects, the director loosely layers comedian David Cross’ squeaky voice over Cassius’, resulting in a hilarious sensory disconnect that never stops being funny. Riley’s left-of-center vision of Oakland takes on more texture with an Idiocracy-style game show where contestants submit themselves to vicious beatings and an experimental art collective that gives way to Detroit getting pelted with balloons filled with sheep’s blood while reciting lines from The Last Dragon. It’s blunt, unblinking satire, and though it comes close to exhausting itself once Hammer’s CEO forces Cassius to rap for the gathered, white masses, it’s always heaving with life, humor, and justified aggression. Sorry To Bother You is nothing if not breathing down your neck.
Stanfield, whose star has been on the rise since he first debuted in Short Term 12, is the life raft of Riley’s peripatetic narrative. He leaps nimbly between the film’s breakneck tonal shifts, but still manages to imbue Cassius with enough gravity to keep the character grounded; it would’ve been all too easy for Cassius to be a walking plot device, bandied about from set piece to set piece. Thompson is riveting — even if her role could very well be excised without impacting the narrative core — as is Hammer, who’s keenly aware of the kind of movie he’s in. Yeun, on the other hand, struggles to stand out; in lacking the idiosyncratic qualities of his co-stars, he’s reduced to being a de facto straight man in a film that has no use for one.
Sorry To Bother You is fun until it’s overwhelming, and Riley would likely have benefitted from a good editor. But excess tends to be a byproduct of vision, and here Riley’s proven himself to be a confident, gutsy storyteller. Besides, it’s in that excess that cults tend to manifest; your kids are going to worship this movie.
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