“Stick to the script” is the motto of Regalview, the telemarketing company that Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) works for. Sticking to the script is all that is expected of him. In fact, so little is expected of the employees that Cassius gets the job even after being caught lying about his previous job experience (going so far as to have a fake trophy and fake Employee of the Month plaque made for his interview). Sorry To Bother You, the directorial debut of rapper, singer, screenwriter, etc. Boots Riley, does everything but stick to the script.
And that’s a good thing. Sorry To Bother You is a satire that goes after everything American, from labor to race to class and beyond. It pulls no punches and has no time for subtlety. The film takes place in an almost dystopian version of our current world today, specifically in Oakland. It’s a world where the two biggest shows on television are “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me”, a show in which contestants literally just get the shit kicked out of them, and “Have a Cola and Smile, Bitch”, which, well, speaks for itself. It’s a world where the news shows nothing but violent protests and riots happening throughout the country. It’s a world where most people, unable to make ends meet due to stagnant wages, are forced to work for WorryFree, a company that offers housing and food in exchange for lifelong servitude, lead by supreme bro and douchebag Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, in a case of perfect casting). Like I said, subtlety isn’t exactly what Riley is going for.
Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Atlanta) is an instant star. Cassius is a man who longs for more out of his poor and mundane life. He lives in his uncle’s garage, he drives what he describes as “a bucket”, and he’s constantly frustrated by it all, expressing his desires and wants with his artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). When Cassius learns that the secret key to success while working at Regalview is to use his “white voice”, he instantly moves up within the company, becoming a Power Caller that wears suits, gets to his office via a gold elevator, and makes the big bucks. When he’s at the top floor working as a Power Caller, it’s a rule that he must always be using his white voice. Did I mention that this movie isn’t subtle? It’s all the better that it isn’t though, trust me.
Cassius is a character we’ve seen plenty of times before, although they’ve always been played by white men. He starts innocent and pure, knowing the difference between right and wrong, but as he becomes more rich and more powerful, he in turn becomes corrupted. He sacrifices his morals and his friends in pursuit of the bigger paycheck, the bigger house and the bigger office in very Wolf-of-Wall-Street-fashion. Stanfield plays the part with immense precision; Cassius has a quietness about him that prevents him from being the center of attention, but at the same time he always appears hyper-alert, looking like he’s always thinking and planning ahead. When he starts to embrace the wild and partying lifestyle of the elite, he still comes across as someone that doesn’t quite belong, someone who never seems to be fully comfortable in that environment. Stanfield does all this while still delivering hilarious quips of bewilderment throughout the film, always reminding the audience that this is a comedy, as dark as it may get.
There’s no weak link to be found among the cast. Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok, Annihilation, Westworld, Creed, the list goes on), ever the chameleon, never plays the same character twice, and Detroit is no exception. She’s an artist who’s truly dedicated to her craft, and a strong supporter of every cause you can think of. Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead, Voltron, Okja) plays Squeeze, the organizer of several unions, including one at Regalview, who’s sole purpose is to unite his fellow workers into demanding fair pay and benefits for their labor. The two serve as Cassius’s conscience, constantly trying to bring him back to the light and stand up for what’s right.
Cassius’s journey is anything but a straight path. The film has a surreal, dreamlike quality to it, with strange scene transitions, tense, unsettling music cues, and bizarre but fun visuals (whenever Cassius calls a customer, the movie literally plops him down into the home of whoever is on the line). It features truly outrageous dialogue (the funniest of these being delivered by Danny Glover), along with some genuinely disturbing imagery at parts. The third act of the movie takes a wild turn, going so far off the straight and narrow path that it’s bound to either isolate or infatuate audiences. Boots Riley has a fresh and unique style that’s all his own, and it’s more than welcome in today’s blockbuster-packed summers.
Sorry To Bother You is a stinging commentary on the exploitation of labor and the immoral aspects of capitalism, and it’s no accident that it’s directed and written by a black man, starring a black man. In a world where the only way to get ahead is by always speaking in your white voice, Sorry to Bother You can be inspiring, showing the immortal message of the power of people versus the companies they work for. Its bizarre style, heavy-handiness and uneven tone and pacing may scare some movie-goers away, but this is a film that feels especially relevant and even important in today’s society. Going off script can work for the better.
3.5 / 5 Stars
Sorry to Bother You is now playing in theaters everywhere.