On ideals, identities, corporate America, corporate farce, and the moment that confirms Sorry to Bother You is the real deal
Sorry to Bother You Annapurna Pictures
Director: Boots Riley
Screenplay: Boots Riley
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Omari Hardwick, Kate Berlant, Terry Crews, Michael X. Sommers, David Cross, Patton Oswalt and Danny Glover
Rated R / 1 hour, 51 minutes / 2.35:1
July 13, 2018
(out of four)
You wait to see how far a film, or an artist, is willing to go. And then the moment hits, and you have your answer, one way or another. At the point of no return, does the filmmaker pull up, and slow down, or does he floor it?
When that moment comes in Sorry to Bother You, writer/director Boots Riley leaves no doubt. Already a shrewdly pointed, tongue-in-cheek rags-to-riches story pingponging between the mildly absurd and the brazenly surreal, the film then takes an unforgettable final leap. It is not the kind of thing you spoil in a movie review, but it's also not the kind of thing a review can ignore. Suffice it to say: An increasingly paranoid dream transforms fully into a body-horror nightmare. The protagonist's willful loss of self has taken him inexorably down a road that finds him face to face with the violative distortion of physical autonomy that waits at the end of the capitalist rainbow.
To put the fantastical outrageousness of this plot development into some kind of visual (although certainly not ideological) context, it's genuinely like something out of South Park. A grotesque, absurdist hallucination that pushes this disorienting odyssey of American success to its logical, exploitative extreme. It is the boldest, silliest and most surreal of Riley's satirical gestures, and yet in a significant sense it's the most real - horrifyingly real - thing that happens in the whole movie. Certainly the most physically consequential. But it also makes the film's ideas complete, crystallizing its satire simply by following through in the most diabolical way possible. Even by this point, Sorry's upwardly mobile odyssey remains philosophically the same - it's just the existential terms of service that have changed, and that makes all the difference.
I realize this may sound all too nebulous for those who haven't yet seen the film and don't know what specific event I'm referring to. I'll just say that it's a discovery made by our hero - Cassius (or Cash), played with nervous precision by Lakeith Stanfield - on the back end of his reluctant journey from entry-level telemarketer to corporate superstar. This discovery is outlandish and inexplicable, and yet it's also reality slapping him in the face. Everything else he experiences and encounters during the movie is couched in rhetoric and bullshit. Performance, ideology, celebrity, expectation, image, identity. Prepared speeches, ethical debates, conflicted loyalties, public relations. Everybody is tugging at him this way or that, and so when he stumbles upon ... well, what he stumbles upon, it's the most honest, straightforward thing that's happened to him in months. It's so starkly unambiguous. The curtain has dropped. It's a visual emblem of a truth previously obscured under layers and layers of rhetorical gamesmanship.
It's also Riley's best and clearest ideological message. In his feature debut, the leftist musician-turned-filmmaker is sharp and unapologetic in his critiques, but it's in his fits of imagination that the film lands most powerfully. This is a deliriously entertaining, savagely funny film that calls to mind the likes of Brazil, Idiocracy and Bamboozled - its sociopolitical urgency weaving in and out of his spoofs and sketches and sight gags. But landing where the film does near the end, Riley compactly delivers a statement with one indelible image - he makes an idea stick without resorting to more didactic measures.
Like any wise political filmmaker, he indulges the messiness and inherent contradictions that come with engaging broad ideas or any governing structure (in the case of this movie, a corporate one) - and the people who embody or exist within them. For Cash, the intersections of identity and status that come with his climb up the corporate ladder are thorny to say the least. Success of one kind is failure of another. His every step (promotion, money, increased responsibility and visibility and power) makes him more of a target, more of a symbol. Loyalties are inevitably split, frames of reference invariably diverge.
And all he really wanted was a steady job. Enough to pay long-overdue rent to his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews), whose garage has been Cash's home for months now, if not longer. Maybe enough to get a place of his own, to be able to take his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson*), an artist, out to a decent dinner.
* Just as a brief aside, the film benefits from landing two of the most exciting rising stars in cinema today - Stanfield (Atlanta, Short Term 12, Get Out) and
Thompson (Annihilation, Dirty Computer, Creed, Dear White People) - as its leads. Neither has yet been typecast, and they make Sorry to Bother You richer by their presence.
Cash landed a thankless gig at the telemarketing firm RegalView, which is connected to a giant corporate conglomerate called WorryFree - we see their cheerful TV ads throughout the film - that sells a very particular brand of lifestyle. Lifetime contract, room and board, no bills, and all you've gotta do is work at the company that owns you until you drop dead. The company's charismatic Silicon Valley douchebag of a CEO is named Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). Get yourself noticed at RegalView, maybe you'll get yourself a face-to-face with Steve.
Cash will indeed get himself noticed. Once he gets the hang of the whole telemarketing thing - the secret, his grizzled co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) instructs him, is to use his "white voice" (Cash's is provided by David Cross) - he quickly moves up the ranks. Never a film to pass up an opportunity to expose or lampoon its various relational dynamics, Sorry to Bother You dramatizes each phone call by dropping Cash - desk, phone and all - into the the room with everyone he calls, a hilarious illustration of the invasive nature of this whole profession. Sometimes his calls come at innocuous times (an ordinary morning at the breakfast table) sometimes at more inopportune moments (a long sit on the toilet).
Right at the moment he's about to join his impassioned co-workers - namely Squeeze (Steven Yeun) and Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) - in an effort to unionize, Cash gets promoted to Power Caller. Only the Power Callers get to go in that gold, bedazzled elevator, complete with the world's most impossibly long access code. Now that he's got a more powerful role in the company, his friends and (former?) colleagues expect him to be able to use that power to help get their demands through. Except ... well, needless to say, his loyalties become strained rather quickly. Detroit is his moral and political conscience, and thus their relationship becomes a more and more difficult balancing act as he gets embedded in a corporate culture that blinds him to his presumptive ideals.
All of this is handled with a manic, playful energy that never subsides. Sorry to Bother You is always spiraling in one direction or another, taking on not just a life of its own but many. Riley has a knack for following the volatile temperament of his narrative wherever it wishes to go, allowing its wild, messy impulses to govern how we experience - which is to say, how the characters experience - anything and everything that happens on screen, both consciously and subconsciously. (And that's presupposing that in this movie there's a difference.) Psychological logic is made physically manifest. The film discomforts and teases, it whispers and it shouts, it spars and it bludgeons. And when it finally comes down to it, and we see what is waiting behind that door, it all, somehow, makes perfect sense.