First-time writer-director Boots Riley, leader of musical group the Coup, creates one of the craziest movies you will see this—or any—year with Sorry to Bother You, a hilarious, nasty and even scary showcase for the talents of Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson.
This is comedic satire at its screwiest, with sci-fi, fantasy and horror elements inserted in such a way as to completely shatter the rules of conventional filmmaking. Stated simply, there are tons of “what the fuck?” moments in this movie.
Cassius Green (Stanfield) is living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage, looking for a better life and a job. His performance-artist girlfriend, Detroit (Thompson), encourages him to pursue whatever but not to lose his sense of self.
After procuring a job at a telemarketing agency, Cassius finds himself striking out call after call. It’s here that Riley employs an ingenious visual trick, with Cassius physically showing up in the lives of the people he interrupts with his telemarketing nonsense, dropping his desk into one situation after another (people having sex, people mourning, etc.). This does a solid job of conveying the intrusiveness of that particular sales tactic.
Thanks to a seasoned coworker (Danny Glover), Cassius is advised to use his white man voice (supplied by the great, and very white, David Cross). This brings immediate success and catapults Cassius up the ladder to the hallowed upstairs office where the “power callers” reside. The road to success involves him becoming more of a douchebag and, ultimately, a revolutionary.
Were the film just a caustic observation on the art of the sale and trying to get ahead in life, it would be funny enough. Riley doesn’t stop there. Sorry to Bother You winds up being a brutal look at class separation, racial divides, evil corporate conglomerates, slave labor, social media and bleeding head wounds. (Stanfield spends a lot of screen time with a Revolutionary War-looking makeshift bandage wrapped around his head, complete with a big red blood stain).
Stanfield, who had that masterful turning point scene in Get Out, which featured a bloody nose, a camera and lots of screaming, goes next level in this movie. He occupies the role in a way that has you seeing nobody else in it. Thompson, currently one of my very favorite actresses, does nothing but cement that status with everything she does in this movie.
Armie Hammer is funnier than you would ever expect him to be as coke-sniffing billionaire Steve Lift, and, oh my, things take some crazy turns after he shows up in the movie. Also showing master comic chops are Steven Yeun (Glenn from The Walking Dead) as a revolutionary coworker and Robert Longstreet as Cassius’s twisted boss.
A long way into this movie, you’ll be thinking “Gee, Bob … seems like straightforward satire, to me. This isn’t as ’out there’ as you suggested, you stupid, lying, ugly bastard.” Hang tight, because Riley is going to knock you on your ass with tonal shifts as violent as a volcanic eruption during a nuclear explosion. Clearly, there was nobody really watching over this movie and declaring, “Oh, hell no, you can’t do that. Nope!” This movie is a pure example of what can happen when you don’t restrict filmmakers and just let them go.
Sorry to Bother You falls short of classic status due to some glaringly loose-ended scenes and occasional jokes that fall flat. Riley has a scattershot style that results in some moments that feel a little sloppy and unfinished, enough so as to hurt the overall impression a bit. Still, the brashness of this enterprise is absolutely breathtaking. I think Riley’s all-time classic is yet to come.
If you are suffering sequel and superhero fatigue this summer and you crave something raw and new, Sorry to Bother You will not disappoint. It also might just fuck you up a bit.