Boots Riley delivers an original satire on race and greed which will be compared to ’Get Out’
Dir/scr: Boots Riley. US, 105 min. 2017.
Get Out, it’s not. But Sorry to Bother With You will inevitably be compared with Jordan Peele’s 2017 hit, which also premiered at Sundance, not only because they share actor Lakeith Stanfield, who stars here, but also in its wild mash-up of racial commentary with horror/sci-fi tropes. But first-time director Boots Riley, an activist, musician and founder of the hip-hop group The Coup, seems less influenced by Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Rosemary’s Baby than Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich or the early absurdist films of Michel Gondry.
Though original and weird enough to stand out in the marketplace, Sorry to Bother You is hit-and-miss
Set in a contemporary, though slightly off-kilter Oakland, California, the film follows the strange journey of Cassius “Cash” Green (Stanfield), a 30-something black man who finds a job at a telemarketing firm called RegalView. What begins as a send-up of office culture and racial stereotypes slowly descends into a wilder satire about the evils of selling out and the horrors of corporate control.
Though original and weird enough to stand out in the marketplace, Sorry to Bother You is hit-and-miss, alternatingly socially-conscious and ludicrous, packing in so many ideas that it doesn’t always cohere. Some daring distributor could take a risk on this challenging oddball-of-a-movie, but this is a film that’s more a curiosity or cult item, likely to find its best audience on home viewing platforms.
Early on, Riley drops clues about his story’s alternative universe, just a wee bit more absurd than the current United States, where the country’s most popular TV show is called I Got the S#&* Kicked Out of Me and a company called WorryFree Living offers citizens a job, three meals a day, and a place to sleep, all within the walls of a prison-like existence. The film also introduces us to its occasional whimsical visual language: When “Cash” makes calls, he and his office desk literally drop into the home of the person he is calling. The film’s occasionally cartoonish production design and funky soundtrack also bolster the film’s almost surrealist world.
Though “Cash” initially just wants to find a way to pay the rent, he’s increasingly attracted to the idea of upward mobility at his job and the chance to be a “Power Caller” on the floors above. His cubicle neighbor (Danny Glover, in a surprise cameo) suggests that the secret to telemarketing success is using his “white voice”—which becomes a running gag throughout the film: At several points, Riley dubs in a squeaky clean “white” voice over Stanfield’s own.
Meanwhile, a union organizer, “Squeeze” (Steven Yeun), is gathering up the RegalView workers to form a telemarking union as a growing band of antifa-like activists are taking to the streets, protesting the slave labor conditions at WorryFree Living.
When “Cash”—using his white voice—finds himself to be a natural salesman, and propelled to the ranks of top-floor telemarketers (selling slave labor for WorryFree rather than encyclopedias), he must make a choice: to stay with his colleagues and his girlfriend Detroit, a rabblerousing performance artist (Thor: Ragnorak’s Tessa Thompson)—or to sell out and make the big money upstairs.
What ensues is a series of bizarre revelations about WorryFree Living and the aspirations of its CEO Steve Lift (a lively Armie Hammer). When Cassius is invited to one of Lift’s elite parties, Sorry to Bother You increasingly resembles Get Out. There is a humorously uncomfortable sequence where he sits down in front of the party’s all-white guests, who proceed to pressure him to rap (they chant, “rap, rap, rap”) and eventually he does with decidedly mixed results. Later, Cash plumbs the depths of Lift’s labyrinthine basement, only to discover more scary revelations about the corporation’s grander plans.
Sorry to Bother You is ambitious and outrageous, but as much as Stanfield is a likeably hapless hero (like an African American version of Brazil’s Sam Lowry), the film struggles to give its central characters authentic wants and desires. (Thompson’s Detroit character is particularly under-written, functioning more as a symbol of rebellion—she even wears large earrings that are declarative protest messages—rather than someone Cash might actually care for.)
Riley so wants to make strong criticisms about everything from racial stereotyping to corporate greed that he forgets the need for a real person to root for at the story’s core. One of the reasons that Get Out works so well is its ability to place the viewer in the protagonist’s skin; Sorry to Bother You’s biting satire operate mostly on the surface.
Production Companies: Significant Productions, MACRO
International Sales: Endeavor Content
Producers: Nina Yang Bongiovi, Forest Whitaker, Charles King, George Rush, Jonathan Duffy, Kelly Williams
Executive Producers: Michael Y. Chow, Michael K. Shen, Kim Roth, Poppy Hanks, Philipp Engelhorn, Caroline Kaplan, Gus Deardoff
Cinematography: Doug Emmett
Editor: Terel Gibson
Production design: Jason Kisvarday
Music: Tune-Yardsc: Tune-Yards
Main cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Jermaine Fowler, Armie Hammer, Omari Hardwick