You’ve never seen anything quite like Sorry to Bother You (2018). The provocative feature debut of rapper-turned-writer/director Boots Riley tackles race and capitalism with a ferocious and fantastical sense of humor that will have audiences alternately gasping and scream-laughing.
Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green, a young black man struggling to make his way at a shady telemarketing firm in Oakland. To show his discomfort in this gig, Riley throws his hero full-bodied into this interruptive workflow. When Cassius places a call, he and his desk are literally dropped into strangers’ homes, crashing into their family dinners, tearful moments of solitude, or frenzied sexual trysts. His girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), has no qualms about her survival job; she spins signs by day so she can make political performance art by night. But Cassius grows frustrated making little money in a job he feels gives him no purpose. That is until a long-timer (Danny Glover) offers a crucial tip for success: “Use your white voice.”
“It’s not what they sound like,” this telemarketing sage explains, “it’s what they think they are supposed to sound like.” Just like that, Cassius opens his mouth and out spouts his comically cheerful “white voice,” lent by comedian David Cross. Cassius’s numbers instantly soar, and soon he’s entrusted to the upper echelons of the company and made aware of its far shadier side. While his co-workers strike for better pay, Cassius is buddying up to eccentric CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who revels in drugs, Eyes Wide Shut-style orgies, and white privilege. Cassius’s search for purpose is soothed by fat paydays and the charismatic mentoring of his boss (played by Omari Hardwick, white voiced by Patton Oswalt). But as he climbs the ladder, he’s forced to ask what’s too big a price to pay for selling out?
The desk drops are the first sign that Riley’s dipping into the surreal for his political satire. The “white voice” becomes a barbed running joke that charts Cassius’s surrendering his identity in favor of scoring wealth by playing into a corrupt, dehumanizing, and racist system. Then, Sorry to Bother You hits the gas at the end of its second act, with a mind-bending reveal that throws Cassius into spin, introduces a powerful metaphor, and lays the ground for a spectacular and totally bonkers finale. You can find spoilers online, but I’d recommend dodging them and preserving Riley’s jaw-dropper. Few movies offer something so surprising and yet totally earned.
Sharply satirical and proudly audacious, Sorry To Bother You is a bit reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman. But forget the mournful navel-gazing. Riley explodes his humor onto the streets, through incendiary graffiti, rowdy political rallies, and even Thompson’s attention-grabbing earrings, which brandish words like “MURDER MURDER MURDER, KILL KILL KILL” turning the smile between them into a challenge. This is a defiantly and gleefully black comedy that aims not only for laughs, but also outrage and engagement.
Also awe-striking is just the incredibly cool and sheer amount of style Riley thrusts into this film. Aside from the surreal blooms, there’s a distinctive costume designs that fold in swaggering suits, curious kimonos, and a most enticing use of rubber gloves. Set designs include a posh elevator with an impractical chandelier, bedrooms that transform before our very eyes as Cassius thrives, fishbowl-like offices, and a decadent mansion packed with luxury and ludicrous details. Even in the background action of scenes, there’s mayhem to be found, filling every frame with Riley’s addictive verve.
With a script that’s insanely imaginative and fearlessly fresh, it’s little wonder Riley was able to score such a stellar cast for his first film. In his most demanding role yet, Stanfield shoulders Sorry To Bother You with aplomb, making the spin from silliness to sincerity with the agility of an Olympian. Thompson is a cheeky charm bomb dropping jokes and hard truths with a searing smirk. Steven Yeun brings a sultry earnestness as Cassius’s co-worker/romantic rival. Flashing a smile like a lightning strike, Hardwick is uniquely hilarious and unnerving as a living cartoon of soul-crushing compromise. Cross and Patton lean hard into lunacy, offering vocal turns that are blisteringly jarring yet superb comedic foils to Stanfield and Harwick’s work. And Hammer is bizarre perfection as an evil mogul, his debonair allure making it easy to understand how Cassius would be wooed by his big talk. Then Hammer amps up the reckless enthusiasm, and things tilt fast, while still feeling feasible, thanks to the unhinged glint in those alarming blue eyes.
Profane and brilliant, Sorry to Bother You is one of the most daring and thrilling comedies of the last 20 years. Riley makes his first movie like a second isn’t guaranteed, leaving it all onscreen, bold, booming, and alive. And it works! With a script sizzling with wit, a cast bursting with sex appeal and personality, and a visual style that entices audiences to dive into this wild world, Sorry To Bother you is an exhilarating marvel that demands to be seen.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com