By Alex Bird
Sorry To Bother You might be the best movie of the year so far. By combining radical politics, absurd humor, and Charlie Kaufman style pop surrealism (think Being John Malkovich), rapper Boots Riley has made one of the most thoughtful and unlikely hits of the summer. Made on a shoestring budget and set in a world of sadistic game shows and slave labor contracts that manages to feel both dystopian and barely exaggerated, Sorry To Bother You is very funny, crazy, maddening, extremely smart, and weird as hell.
The movie follows Cassius “Cash” Green, a black Oakland native who lands a dismal telemarketing job, along with his artist fiancée Detroit (Tessa Thompson), and friend Sal (Jermaine Fowler). Cash initially struggles, before an older coworker (Danny Glover), teaches him how to use his “white voice,” voice acted by David Cross, to make sales. Cash soon becomes one of the office’s top salesmen. Meanwhile, Detroit and Sal are finding less success, and are soon recruited by Squeeze (Steven Yeun), an organizer who has come to unionize their office. Drama emerges as Cash, now making exponentially more money, gets closer to the management, while the union continues to mount pressure, culminating in a strike.
Despite feeling conflicted, Cash continues to rise up the ranks, eventually being introduced to Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), CEO of Worryfree, a company that hires workers for unbreakable lifetime contracts and houses them in hastily converted prisons. Lift, a parody of tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Uber’s Travis Kalanick, is charismatic and unpredictable. Like just about everything in this movie he’s alternately hilarious and terrifying. Cash’s involvement with Worryfree takes a bizarre turn, the strike gets more and more serious, and everything comes to a deeply weird, messy, and hilarious head.
Despite making its message clear, Sorry To Bother You never feels like an issue movie. In part that’s because it’s so consistently laugh-out-loud funny, but also because the movie is smart enough to know that a lecture is no fun, and that tackling race, class, or gender separately means only getting part of the story. Boots Riley, a first time director, avowed communist, and frontman of Oakland hip hop group The Coup (best known for anti-capitalist songs like “Guillotine” and “Five Million Ways to Kill a CEO”), seems like an unlikely fit as the director of one of the summer’s most popular comedies, but he brings in an extremely knowledgeable and confidently ideological perspective on politics from decades of activism, and a sharp, charming wit seen in his lyrics. We’re effortlessly made to instantly love or hate any character, and even the most minor parts have so much personality it’s a shame we don’t see more of them.
The whole movie is anchored by a fantastic performance from Stanfield, best known for his roles in Get Out and Atlanta. Interestingly, both Jordan Peele and Donald Glover, the respective creators of those works, were both signed on to play Cash at one time. Riley, although his politics are somewhat more radical, is part of the same rising wave of black artists combining direct social commentary with surrealism and genre elements that might also be said to include comedian Eric Andre and rapper Killer Mike.
These elements become most clear in the last third of the movie, dominated by a deliberately jarring twist that ratchets up the weird factor well past the point one might reasonably expect. It’s a bit of a shark-jumping moment, and the movie fully knows this and hopes you’ve been cool enough with the previous weirdness to go along with it. The twist, and the directions it takes the movie might alienate some, (not to mention the film’s downright militantly pro-labor politics), but if you’re willing to go along for the ride, it’s rewarding. The movie is bursting with ideas, some of which are unfortunately a bit underexplored, but overall succeeds as a wildly funny comedy, a smart satire on capitalism, and a skillfully-made self aware piece of art.