Nothing can prepare you for the feature debut of Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You – a darkly hilarious, richly layered, head trip of a social-economic satire that will lure audiences in with its clever jokes and fine cast before pulling the rug out from under you time-and-again. Not a film for general audiences – even if they would benefit the most from seeing it – Sorry To Bother You challenges the way audiences conceptualize their lives, what they value, and pushes them to define their moral line. As much of a declaration of American moral corruption as it is a bouncing, silly ride, Sorry To Bother You will rattle around in your brain pan for days, insisting you either take a stand to confront the madness you’ve experienced or surrender to it and adapt.
Here’s the baseline of what you need to know going into Sorry To Bother You: taking place in an alternate reality Oakland, California, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) and his fiancée Detroit (Tessa Thompson) do what they must in order to keep a roof over their heads – a roof provided by Cassius’ uncle Sergio (Terry Crews). Cassius lands a job working as a telemarketer selling various items, but his innate personal anxiety continually gets in his way of making any sales. That is until coworker Langston (Danny Glover) teaches him how to use his “white person voice,” a vocal delivery method that conveys breezy confidence to anyone who hears it, a method used by the highly idolized Power Callers who work on the highest floor of the RegalView Telemarketer building. What starts for Cassius as a means to pay back his uncle, provide stability for his artist fiancée, and earn some notoriety, devolves into a series of escalating events that threaten the bounds of rationality and morality.
On the Sorry To Bother You official site, Riley’s quoted as saying, “There are things that are done in this film that you’re not quote-unquote supposed to do.” It’s a thought that pervades the whole of Sorry as the audience is taken on a ride that feels unbelievably implausible while unconscionably real in America’s current socio-economic status. Is it unrealistic for Cassius to want meaning in his life? No. Is that ideal based on the American Dream prepped, packaged, and sold to him each day of his life? Yes. In order to achieve American exceptionalism, Cassius will do whatever he needs to do to excel because he’s been taught that being able to provide for his fiancée or help his uncle or obtain the status symbols society sees as ideal (cars, money, and influence) is not just the right thing to do, but it’s how you create a legacy. What Riley presents is as much a morality tale as a it is a dark satire of what we as individuals are willing to do to accomplish the American Dream and what the cost of doing so really is. Using art as activism, both within the film’s narrative and the film itself, Riley pushes the bounds of convention in an ever-escalating narrative that slams on the gas every time the audience thinks its plateaued.
The kind of challenging ethical questions that lie underneath the undeniably bonkers execution of Sorry will deter some from seeing the film, while being a siren’s call to others. However you take the quote, Riley’s not wrong. Sorry offers up a television show titled I Got The S#*@ Kicked Out of Me! in which contestants have multiple forms of humiliation heaped upon them in a desperate attempt at fame. Considering the like-me-share-me-retweet-me culture we live in, a show of this stripe isn’t too far from our own reality. If you don’t want to go the 15-minutes route, you could always do as Cassius’s RegalView bosses say and follow the golden rule – Stick To The Script. It’s the corporate mandate for how telemarketers handle calls, but it’s also a larger narrative theme that holds a mirror up to the audience. Cassius wants a life of meaning and he believes if he keeps his head down, stays focused on his work, and keeps to the script, then all the riches will be his. It’s the exact line generations of Americans have been and are still told every day of lives – stay focused, work hard, and the American Dream can be yours. Then there’s the third track which Uncle Sergio’s on the verge of succumbing to – a return to slavery offered by the kind folks of WorryFree who’ll give any leaser three hots and a cot and endless work for the low price of a lifetime contract. Sure, they’ll work you until you’re shattered, nay – until you have to be glued together – but at least it offers the certainty of housing and food.
In order to pull off one of the most insanely inventive, densely layered films of 2018, Riley assembled a top-notch cast from the leads to minor roles. Stanfield (Get Out; Atlanta) delivers another standout performance, one which relies heavily on kinaesthetics to convey Cassius’s comfort in any given scene. When initially introduced, Cassius can barely stand upright, as though his anxieties are constantly pulling him toward the ground preventing him from achieving comfort unless he’s with Detroit. That all shifts when he becomes a Power Caller. He moves with purpose and direction, only regaining that initial slump as the narrative escalates from comedic satire into the insanely subversive. Thompson is absolutely effortless as Detroit, a character she portrays with endless confidence and rock-solid certainty in her worldview. Being an artist, Detroit is the monetary antithesis to Cassius – she works to create art, not to live. Thompson endows the character with a level of grounded-believability for the narrative while serving as Cassius’s social conscience. Rounding out the cast is a veritable who’s-who of talent. Danny Glover’s earlier 2018 release Proud Mary saw him sleep-walking through a role, whereas here he’s in top form; Jermaine Fowler (Superior Donuts) and Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) are Cassius’s RegalView coworkers Salvador and Squeeze; Omari Hardwick (Power) plays Cassius’s morally questionable Power Caller boss Mr. _______; David Cross, Patton Oswalt, and Lily James all provide their dulcet tones as the “white voices”; but the real humdinger, the performance that provides the ultimate source of Cassius’s moral indecisiveness comes from Armie Hammer’s WorryFree CEO Steve Lift. Hammer imbues Lift, a man we know is morally vacant, with such charisma that you can’t help but like him. That is, until the third act reveals itself – which only the most observant audience members will recognize as the only place Riley could take Sorry – as the pinnacle of capitalist psycho-fantasy.
If there’s anything that brings the film down, it’s a plot line introduced through coworker Squeeze that the film suggests was meant to go in one direction before it’s either truncated for time or abandoned altogether. At its core, Squeeze is a central component in setting up not just a thematic element to Sorry, but also the narrative elements that build to the enormously evocative action set piece in the conclusion. However, his character goes on a journey that seems unnecessary in his interactions outside of these two elements. Though not a significant enough distraction that audiences will get stuck on it, it’s the kind of strange, potential narrative glitch that once seen, can’t be unseen. And in a film like Sorry To Bother You, calling this the “unseen thing” is saying something.
Sorry To Bother You is without a doubt the strangest film to hit theaters all year. It’s hilarious, thoughtful, dark, and – in some cases – too real despite its alternative setting. Riley wisely sells the film on the “white person voice” as a means of gaining audience’s curiosity, and – gratefully – there’s far more going on in Sorry than just a vocal trick. The whole film is so layered that a single viewing won’t be enough to catch everything Riley throws at you and by credits roll, anyone who sees this film is going to be dying to discuss it. So please go see this film, if only to offer more discussion and more dissection of a film that is easily the craziest thing to hit theaters.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.