Since this movie is still playing in theaters and at the start of it’s run, I’m doing a spoiler-free review. That’s right spoiler-free! Just a note here before we get to the nitty-gritty. My spoiler-free reviews are to help you decide if you think the film is for you. My spoiler-laden reviews are for a more in-depth discussion of what the film meant to me, and should only be read by those who have seen the film, or have no interest in seeing it (in which case I don’t know why you’d want to read a review about it unless you’re my mom … and even then).
To judge from some of the comments I heard when I left the theater, people either loved this, or it was a bit too crazy for them. So if you’re a more down-to-earth, realistic type person who doesn’t go in for the fantastical fable kind of story, then Sorry to Bother You may not be for you, or you may like it until the last 30 minutes where things really go haywire. If, however, you love the heck out of well-told parables (for example, if you liked Idiocracy), then you’re going to love this film.
So, in my opinion, writer/director Boots Riley’s debut film is a trip. It’s hilarious. It’s poignant. And it’s a frightening foreboding fable. At the story’s start, Cassius “Cash” Green (yes, he’s named that for a reason) is looking for a job in the exciting world of telemarketing. He lives in his uncle’s garage and owes four months rent. His girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), is an artist but has risen to the top of the world of sign twirling. Driven (she’s already gotten the best corners), Detroit is hard at work on an art/performance piece that she thinks will shake things up and launch her career as an artist. A go-getter, it’s not clear why she’s with Cash (Lakeith Stanfield), because at first, he seems like he’s anything but. But when he goes on his interview and is first chastised then lauded for the creative lies (complete with props) he tells to impress the boss, we can see why Detroit has fallen for him.
The boss (Robert Longstreet) is impressed and sees big things for Cash. He dangles the coveted status of Power Caller in front of him, a seemingly mythical status that only the best of the best attain to ride that golden elevator to the top. Cash takes the job and crashes until he takes a piece of advice from a veteran telemarketer, Langston (Danny Glover), who tells him to use his white voice. At first, Cash rebuffs this suggestion, but after seeing its success he relents and soon is well on his way to the top. Meanwhile, we keep seeing ads for a company called WorryFree, which is looking for workers. And as the film goes on, we learn more and more just what working for them entails. At the same time, one of the workers enlists him in their drive to organize for better pay and better working conditions. Before he learns the secrets of the white voice he’s a strong proponent of the union, but when he’s offered a promotion, he stops his participation, telling them he’s still willing to give them moral support. And here begins the slippery slope of trading his values for cash. It’s from this point on that the film puts magical realism into a high gear and the shit hits the fan.
Riley has created a fantastic parable that in 10 years time might not be that far off from reality (see Idiocracy). Filled with hilarious sight gags, relentlessly building on its own memes, the film keeps turning the screws on Cash and the world until the final shot. Armie Hammer is brilliant as Steve Lift, the owner of WorryFree, coming across as megalomaniacal and debilitatingly insecure all at the same time. While Thompson shows her knack for playing the wacky things straight. But it’s Stanfield who works the big magic here, portraying a likable loser that we still root for despite all the awful choices he’s made.
Posing the big questions like when do you know you’ve sold your soul, what is evil, and what is your responsibility to stop it, the film takes a deep dive into some extremely serious issues for our time, while remaining a relentlessly fun and fascinating film. There’s so much wild visual art in this film it’s bound to keep revealing things upon subsequent watches. And I do plan to watch it subsequently.