D: Boots Riley / 111m
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Steven Yeun, Terry Crews, Kate Berlant, Michael X. Sommers, Danny Glover, Robert Longstreet, Patton Oswalt, David Cross
For Cassius Green (Stanfield), life in an alternative-present Oakland is something of a struggle. When he lands a job at RegalView, a telemarketing company, things look like they might be about to improve. But despite his eagerness to succeed, he finds it hard to get anywhere with the sales leads he’s given. It’s not until a colleague, Langston (Glover), advises him to use his “white voice” that Cassius sees his fortunes improve. Soon he’s RegalView’s top salesman, but at the same time that the workforce are being prompted to strike for better pay and conditions by union organiser Squeeze (Yeun). Promoted to the position of Power Caller, Cassius opts for more money and prestige over helping his friends and colleagues, including his girlfriend, Detroit (Thompson). But entry to the upper echelons of RegalView reveal a side to the company that sits uncomfortably with Cassius’s political and social beliefs, beliefs that are challenged even further when he discovers a connection to WorryFree, an organisation that promotes a life of free food and lodging, plus no bills, but on condition that people accept a lifetime’s working contract…
For much of the its first hour, Sorry to Bother You is a sharply detailed, refreshingly adept satire that pokes fun at working-class aspirations and the various ways that the lower middle-class stops those aspirations from being successful. The sales floor at RegalView is used as a metaphor for those aspirations that remain stifled at every turn, while the management provide their workers with mixed messages and false assurances that success is only a few calls – or a positive attitude – away. Cassius’ eventual rise to the level of Power Caller serves as a further satirical swipe at the establishment’s exploitation and integration of talented individuals for its own nefarious purposes. It’s a little bit obvious, and borders on being a little trite in its execution, as are the problems it causes for Cassius with Detroit and his friends at work, but first-time writer/director Boots Riley gives the material a fresh enough reworking to offset any real concerns, and once the viewer has settled into the movie’s comfortable narrative groove, he introduces Cassius to WorryFree’s head honcho, Steve Lift (Hammer). And from there, the movie goes in a completely unexpected direction.
As the poster has it, this is “something you need to see to believe”. What Riley has up his sleeve will either grab you and keep you watching thanks to the sheer lunatic audacity of it all, or it will make you say to yourself, “nope, that’s it, I’m out of here”. But it does put an entirely different spin on things, and is a completely original take on the lengths that corporations will go to to maximise profits while exploiting their workforce. It’s a brave approach by Riley, but also one that makes Sorry to Bother You an unforgettable experience that really takes huge, confident strides forward in its second half, both in terms of the narrative, and in terms of the characters’ involvement. Cassius is torn between securing a good life for himself and the extent of the growing social responsibility he feels once he discovers what WorryFree is up to. Stanfield, whose potential as an actor has been obvious for a while now, grabs the role with both hands and gives a terrific performance that’s far more difficult than it seems because for most of the movie Cassius is more passive than aggressive. There’s terrific support too from Thompson as Detroit (whose choice of earrings is something to keep track of), and Hammer as Lift, the entrepreneur without a soul or a social conscience.
Rating: 8/10 – with an arresting visual style, and no shortage of humour, Sorry to Bother You is an audacious, bold, and confidently handled exposé of the perils of unchecked elitism and its association with new capitalism; it may get “weird” but by (mostly) playing it straight, the movie still makes a considerable impact, and is definitely not a movie that you’ll forget in a hurry – and that is very much a good thing.