By: Billy Cross
When you set off to satirize contemporary America, where do you even begin? When everyday feels like a Bosch painting realized, the very notion feels like a lost cause. But rapper-activist-director Boots Riley challenges our miasmic dystopia with Sorry to Bother You, a scathing satire that takes aim at racism, corporate hegemony, and economic inequality. He navigates our nightmare world by pushing the movie to its utmost absurdist extremes. But don’t mistake this for a heavy-handed lecture. Sorry to Bother You is a comedy through-and-through. Sometimes painfully so.
Before the movie really gets rolling, we spend some time with Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield of “Get Out” and “Atlanta”) as he lands a job with RegalView, a soul-sucking telemarketing company complete with broken vending machines. It is here in the early parts of the movie, where it channels some serious Mike Judge vibes. Maybe a little Charlie Kaufman. Cash eventually learns about a promotional opportunity known as the Power Caller, where the big bucks are made, or so they say. It is here when Cash discovers his “white voice” (dubbed as square as possible by David Cross) through the help of a wise, old, always-great, Danny Glover. As Cash uses his new “gift” to rise through the ranks, the movie descends into madness, often with mixed results.
I say mixed because, well, the movie can feel a bit messy at times. Much of the craziness that unfolds in the second half, as insane as it is, is the least effective part of the movie. It’s where the disconnect with me starts, partly because how rushed and ridiculous it feels. Characters who are introduced in the beginning, like Tessa Thompson’s Detroit, are sidelined to make room for Riley’s more ambitious messages.
It’s at its best when Riley pushes the storytelling visually in creative ways – like when he speaks to customers on the phone, his work desk literally crashes into their homes, or to depict the passage of time, objects in Cash’s pad literally transform from modest to bougie all cut-out style, à la Michel Gondry. There’s just not enough of it.
Sorry to Bother You is flawed, sure, but it’s an important work. It displays Riley’s anxieties of modern society, especially class struggle, in nightmarish ways, but it’s not hopeless. It’s not a movie of inaction. Riley makes sure to focus on the working class and their rise to the challenge. It’s truly fascinating to see something like Sorry to Bother You as a wide theatrical release, and I hope to see more like it in the future.