‘Sorry to Bother You’ takes on capitalistic culture — and how we ignore it — in the most hilarious way possible
Boots Riley’s trippy feature film debut is an anti-capitalist satire for the modern age
Sorry to bother you, but your friendly neighborhood billionaire would like to exploit you, please and thank you.
Should you have any objections, you’ll just have to take it up with your Congress member, who likely doesn’t care (thanks, Citizens United!), your local newspaper (assuming it still exists) or the internet (good luck commanding attention for serious issues among its many caverns of mindless entertainment and casual violence).
Such is reality for Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield, who vibrates with comically naive existential anxiety), a rootless 20-something living in near future-Oakland, California, at the center of writer-director Boots Riley’s trippy, hilarious, all-over-the-place feature film debut, Sorry to Bother You, which opens Friday.
Cassius is broke, with few discernible skills. He drives a rust bucket given to him by his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews), and he lives in his garage. Sergio’s financial state is not much better than Cassius’. The bank is about to foreclose on his house, and Cassius is four months behind on rent. Desperate, Sergio considers signing up to work for Worry Free, a cheap labor empire started by impresario Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). Workers sign a lifetime contract with Worry Free in exchange for room and board and little else. It’s taken the work perk innovations of Google and other tech companies and boiled them down to the least expensive, most depressing version possible. Think Willy Wonka meets Foxconn.
Desperate to hold off foreclosure and keep Sergio from voluntarily imprisoning himself, Cassius takes a job with a telemarketing firm called RegalView, where basement worker drones spend their days selling leather-bound encyclopedia sets. Cassius gets a piece of valuable advice from a veteran caller named Langston, played by Danny Glover: Use his “white voice.” Not the everyday code-switching white voice that every black person in America arms themselves with, but something more transcendent. The white voices Cassius and Langston employ are more like superpowers from on high, and so whenever they’re used, Riley dubs them in with the actual voices of David Cross and Patton Oswalt.
Stay with me. I told you it was trippy.
A life of being primed to yearn for VIP status, no matter how unremarkable it may be, has made Cassius an ideal target to turn against his proletarian brethren at RegalView. When they announce a strike, RegalView managers promote Cassius to the mysterious status of Power Caller. All of a sudden he’s called up to the majors, given a big fat raise and an escape from the drudgery of the basement. Cassius goes from using his white voice to sell encyclopedias to using his white voice to sell Worry Free’s cheap labor to manufacturers and large-scale weapons to any entity capable of buying them.
Cassius is able to save Sergio’s house, buy a flashy new car and the gas to fill it, and take up residence in a swanky new apartment. He even becomes Steve Lift’s favorite new bauble. The price for all of this may not be Cassius’ soul, but it’s close.
Riley, an Oakland rapper with deep ties to the Occupy Wall Street movement, takes a kitchen sink approach to his anti-capitalist satirical polemic. He mixes references to the stop-motion animation of Michel Gondry with the nation’s impending descent into branded doom as predicted by Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.
Plenty of films have been imagining the dystopia that awaits us if America’s billionaire class gets its way and the social safety net is gutted and income inequality is allowed to proliferate unchecked. Ready Player One imagines an America in which the poor live in stacks of mobile homes and commit themselves to indentured servitude within a virtual world where they owe real debt. In Hotel Artemis, Los Angeles is destroyed by the worst riots it’s ever seen thanks to the privatization and commodification of clean drinking water.
But none is as fun, or frankly funny, as Sorry to Bother You. Americans are mollified into accepting their screwed-up state with bright colors and the promise of something better if they just work more. It’s an ugly world Riley’s captured, but it sure is a pleasure to look at. No one captures this irony quite like Cassius’ girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), an artist who adorns herself with cheerful, one-of-a-kind earrings that sport phrases such as “MURDERMURDERMURDER” and “KILLKILLKILL.” Detroit knows the world is a disaster but shrugs and tries to make the best of it, resisting where she can. Within its treatise on the sociopathy of unchecked billionaires and its indictment of apathy among the lower classes, Sorry to Bother You offers a critique of meme culture and everything else that’s keeping most Americans asleep. The highest-rated show on television is one in which the audience watches a volunteer offer himself up for physical abuse on-screen, then jeers wildly at his suffering. Torture Wheel of Fortune, essentially.
Riley’s film thrums with the energy and unnecessary tics of a filmmaker itching to empty the contents of his imagination into one crazy, not-all-together coherent motion picture. This becomes hugely apparent in Sorry’s jaw-dropping, spoiler-filled final act. But as much as it leaves you wondering what you just watched (I initially described it to a friend as Paul Beatty’s The Sellout on copious amounts of acid), Riley’s film manages to do something else: It leaves you wondering what on earth the rapper-turned-writer-director will have to say next.