“What have I done that really matters?”
Sorry to Bother You calls homes to an intrusive, imaginary world that’s a lot like a fish bowl prison; this might look like its Oakland locale, but it never really feels real or possibly believable. This isn’t a depiction of an actual place. As a matter of fact, this darkly comic landscape presents itself as a microcosm of the world as we know it, showcasing problems big and small, vetting its enemies when profitable and voicing its grievances whenever convenient. Sorry to Bother You is messy and funny and sobering, and purposely pesters its entertainment addicted audience into wanting more hilarity and more lunacy. I’ll be damned if it doesn’t deliver the absurdist package with great haste, even if that means the protective bubble-wrap pops before we receive the final message.
A Moses to his urban jungle who’s trying to climb the corporate ladder of an exploitative and capitalist culture, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) acts like no leader. He lives in his Uncle’s garage and is months late on rent. The jalopy he’s been lent spits out clouds of gaseous poverty. “Fourty on Two,” he tells the gas station attendant, sliding below the plexiglass divider a quarter and a dime and a nickel. Cash is given – or perhaps he’s gifted – a job at the Telemarketing firm Regalview, a greedy economic endeavor where the most regal view is a little orange light signaling a sale. His artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) likes him the way he is. Cash falls victim to false aspirations though, framing monetary gain as an equivalence to earned happiness. And it’s true, at least for a little bit, until the honeymoon phase ends and his world is turned upside down.
A social commentary with an inspired visual flare, Sorry to Bother You embraces its individuality and its leftist ideologies with great confidence, expertly depicting how they can be twisted and manipulated despite their greatest intentions. Mob mentalities, led by the socialist spitfire of a union striker named Squeeze (Steven Yeun), capture the spirit of economic uprising. Cash’s girl Detroit creates expressionistic art as a means of eliciting palpable reactions from the audience; at one point she stands fearlessly, nearly naked, asking to be bludgeoned with bullets and cellphones and balloons of sheep’s blood. Why isn’t it surprising that the gallery members happily throw these deadly rotten tomatoes her way? Perhaps it’s because, as the film also notes, pop culture continues to embrace exhibition as a form of entertainment. In this world, the most popular television program is one people go on to get beat up. A clip of Cash getting a soda can thrown at his head launches into the viral video hall of fame. This movie isn’t a portrait of the today, but it is a mirror where our reflection is tinged by the personality and distinct guise of the great Salvador Dali. Everything is twisted and distorted.
Most interesting is the maniacal businessman Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). He’s the mastermind behind the proletariat program branded as the company “Worry Free.” There you are guaranteed housing, food, job security. All of Maslow’s basics in the Hierarchy of Needs are provided so long as you agree to do the work. As Cash increases his worth as a cold caller and eventually becomes one of the prestigious power callers – they deal in the most illicit goods – he lands on Lift’s radar. The mad tycoon makes an insane offer, one that speaks volumes about what insanity a powerful white man thinks massive monetary numbers can realistically justify. This is where Sorry to Bother You – already opting for a fantastical approach – launches into straight up surrealist cinema with an accessible narrative arc. By that I mean the film is constantly shifting, rotating in and out of different irrational situations with preposterous imagery, all while adhering to a story that builds itself with the common three-act structure and the exaggerated criticisms of a good satire. Its bold weirdness is disarming to the point that we allow it to snatch up our attention.
While the movie does a lot, and rightfully questions plenty of our accepted beliefs, the critiques do begin to overlap each other. More can in fact feel like less. And despite that, what the film does best is to portray cultural appropriation through the code switching likened to the parts of our disenfranchised lower class. Cash only does well when he adopts his “white voice.” The bit isn’t racist; it’s his take on a stereotype, and seeing a black man use this performance to taste success is every bit as confusing as it is self-evident. Sorry to Bother You feels similar to watching Get Out, in that it’s uncomfortable and always shocking. Here those same horrors of reality come drenched by the sharp colors, the juxtapositions of fact against fiction, and the sheer imagination of a bizarre Michel Gondry film. Sorry to Bother You pushes its jawbreaker of a message down our throats, going further than you could possibly imagine it could or might, and ends with what we come to learn is an unapologetic title card. You’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I for one can’t wait to see where writer/director Boots Riley goes from here.
“You are awesome.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5