Sorry to Bother You is the first great movie of the year
Many genre films in recent years have found success taking on current issues in American society. Black Panther used the superhero genre to tell a story about the need for representation and openness to the world; Get Out used horror to tell a story about the depths of American racism; Okja used gonzo sci-fi to condemn corporate greed. Each of these films was able to use a familiar format as allegory for what ails us today.
Sorry to Bother You, a wild new satire from director Boots Riley, takes on all of these issues, and more. What distinguishes Riley’s directorial debut, though, is how it couples this focus on societal problems with a tone that captures a generational spirit. Black Panther is a very good film, and gets it point across well. But its style is thoroughly cinematic: what unfolds on screen feels deeply tied to the tradition of blockbuster movies.
Sorry to Bother You feels like it owes its lineage more to memes than movies. It captures the sensibility of millennial America, or Gen Z, or whatever arbitrary moniker you want to give young people who grew up on the Internet and give a shit about the future of the planet. It’s irreverent, and hilarious, and completely earnest. It’s as if Clickhole presented a Spike Lee Joint. And in creating this tone, it’s one of the first movies I’ve seen that both takes on issues that plague American youth and emulates the way they see the world.
The film stars Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield), a down-on-his-luck Oakland resident who nabs a job at RegalView, a telemarketing company. (The job was not hard to get; he’s told sardonically that he got the job because he can read). The pay is meager, but he needs the money: he lives in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage, and he’s months behind on his rent. Living with him is his girlfriend Detroit (a breezily commanding Tessa Thompson), whose passion is the art shows she puts on but who must spend her days twirling a sign for a sign store. Detroit sports earrings with bombastic statements like “Murder murder murder” and “Tell Homeland Security we’re the bomb,” like a radical feminist descendent of Radio Raheem from Do the Right Thing.
Detroit eventually gets a job at RegalView, too. It’s a macabre office, led by managers Johnny (Michael X. Sommers) and Diana (Kate Berlant, hilarious in every moment). Diana tosses around the language of teamwork and family to motivate the telemarketers, although she won’t commit to paying them more. Johnny motivates the office by dangling a promotion: if you make enough sales, you may be promoted to Power Caller in the upstairs office. The pay is higher for Power Callers, and they get to use the golden elevator at the office’s main entrance (Cassius must somberly admire the elevator each day before taking the stairs).
The workers eventually get tired of being mistreated, and along with their friends Squeeze (Steven Yeun) and Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), Cassius and Detroit help lead the effort to start a union. But when a co-worker named Langston (Danny Glover) tells Cassius he’ll have more success on the calls if he uses his ‘white voice,’ Cassius starts to excel, and gets offered the chance to become an illustrious Power Caller. (The ‘white voice’ bit is hilarious in how literally it is executed. David Cross dubs over Stanfield’s lines, and the result is jarring and incredibly funny).
With his new salary, Cassius crosses the union picket line and betrays his friends. He finally gets to ride the elevator, where a joke with the elevator’s passcode is inexplicably the film’s funniest moment. When he meets the other Power Callers, Cassius discovers the lucrative product they are selling: slave labor, on behalf of a ruthless tech company called WorryFree (WorryFree C.E.O. Steve Lift is played like a frat bro by Armie Hammer in a terrific supporting role). If this feels like I’ve given away too much of the plot, I promise, I haven’t. There’s a ton packed into Sorry to Bother You, and the craziness gets amplified tenfold during the film’s second half.
Indiewire has called Sorry to Bother You “Get Out on acid,” a line the film itself has been using in its promotional campaign. Judging by the packed crowd at the Thursday evening screening I attended, it’s a good slogan. It’s not, however, an accurate description of the movie. (Note to film critics: not all racially conscious movies are “Get Out, but ___.”) Get Out is a tight horror movie with a singular focus: the powerful grasp that whiteness maintains over the black experience.
Sorry to Bother You dabbles in this concept, most notably in the speech Langston delivers to Cassius about using his ‘white voice’ during the telemarketing phone calls. The 'white voice,' Langston contends, is not about projecting your race, per se, but about projecting a sense of wealth, confidence, and self-worth; it's about “sounding like you don’t have a care." For Langston, the sound of whiteness is synonymous with that confidence.
Sorry to Bother You goes well beyond this issue, though. It trades the focus and specificity of Get Out for an expansive intersectionality that takes on labor rights, corporate greed, capitalism, the relationship between politics and aesthetic, and the vapidity of popular entertainment (the latter coming mainly through the most popular show on television being I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me, which is exactly what it sounds like). The title of the film turns out to be a clever irony: Sorry to Bother You quickly moves past the pleasantries of telemarketing call introductions into a blunt, bonkers takedown of American society.
In this way, Sorry to Bother You reminds me of some sort of perverse offspring of Requiem for a Dream and The Lego Movie. Like Riley’s film, Requiem for a Dream offers up an ambitious condemnation of American society, addressing issues ranging from reality television to the prescription drug industry to the folly of the American Dream. Sorry to Bother You combines this ambition with the frenetic energy of Internet-inspired humor akin to The Lego Movie, delivering a tone that’s absurdist and desperate, but decidedly not nihilistic; Emmet the Lego and Cassius both yearn for their lives to mean something. (I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me is also highly reminiscent of the Where Are My Pants? show in The Lego Movie.)
In taking on so much, Sorry to Bother You gets a bit messy at the end. There’s a major shift in plot and tone that takes things in a completely new direction. I was still invested, but it’s not unfair to say that the film kind of goes off the rails.
Perhaps, though, this meandering, lost quality is what makes Sorry to Bother You feel so representative of this generation. The film is radical, and intersectional, and takes on the issues that make up our social condition. It’s about people who want labor rights, and don’t want to get chlamydia, and can make jokes about both of those things at the same time.
Sorry to Bother You is also earnest about the weight our choices carry. One of the Power Callers, known puzzlingly as Mr. _____ (Omari Hardwick), recognizes the moral quandary of his job, but tells Cassius: “We don't sit around and cry about what should be; we thrive in what is.” Mr. _____ has given up on fighting back, instead choosing to bask in the spoils of his moral abdication. Squeeze laments this viewpoint later in the film, bemoaning how things get worse but people just get used to the new normal instead of doing anything about it. He rejects this complacency, and instead chooses to take action.
This is where Sorry to Bother You ultimately lands, finding some meaning in collective action. The ending is a little vague, and tonally incoherent, and it doesn’t really give a fuck. And that’s what it makes it just like us, and a representative movie of our time.
Sorry to Bother You: 4 stars