Sorry To Bother You (2018)
Written & Directed by Boots Riley
Cassius Green is elated when he gets a job as a telemarketer for RegalView. He has some trouble though while trying to sell leatherbound books of nonsense nobody needs. An older coworker explains that Cassius needs to use his “white voice,” that voice white people think they are supposed to sound like; that voice with an air of relaxation and no worries. Suddenly Cassius becomes a power caller rocketing to a major promotion. Meanwhile, his friends and fellow telemarketers fight to form a union and demand better pay. Cassius begins selling contracts for WorryFree, a program that offers struggling families help with “lifetime labor contracts,” essentially slavery. As Cassius climbs higher and higher, he comes in contact with dangerously influential figures and learns the dark secrets planned for humanity.
You will be reminded of many things while watching Sorry To Bother You. For me, it was the grungy work of Michel Gondry and the cult classic film on race and corporate power Putney Swope. The aesthetic style of the film is influenced by French filmmaker Gondry who is even referenced in the name of a director on an “educational” film shown in the middle of the movie. For such dark ideas adopting a playful art direction is a great idea. You see it in the way when Cassius makes his calls and is suddenly in the same space as the potential customer, dropping in from the ceiling. As our protagonist upgrades his new apartment, we see objects split apart with the new counterpart inside. It’s very pleasing and fun to watch.
The Putney Swope connection comes in the heightened reality of the world building happening in Cassius’ workplace and seen through media in the film. The overdubbed “white voices” and the selling out all speak to the themes Robert Downey Sr. was trying to convey in his 1969 movie. Armie Hammer, playing the CEO of WorryFree, gives one of his best performance, playing to his Ken-doll good looks to be the ultimate coked up symbol of white corporate privilege. Lakeith Stanfield (Cassius) plays off of Hammer wonderfully in the scene, and their chemistry was my favorite part of the movie. I wanted more scenes between these two because it is where the comedy truly shines.
However, I came away feeling underwhelmed by Sorry To Bother You. It is trying to say so much about so many things that it fails to nail anything down and make a clear thesis statement. I get the sense director Riley was so excited to make this extensive commentary on our modern landscape, but he didn’t have a focus. The telemarketer plot becomes muddled about halfway between the union subplot and the bizarre inner workings of the power callers. Then, when the WorryFree plot is made the center of attention the early parts of the film seem to fall away into irrelevance. There is also a weird pulling back from going as dark as a movie as this should. There are some light touches on the idea of voluntary slavery but this gets sidetracked for probably the wildest plot twist in the picture, and it is a dark one. There’s so much worldbuilding, but there’s very little full development of ideas and themes.