When I started planning my screening schedule for SXSW, Sorry To Bother You was the one film I knew I had to get in to at all costs. I’d been semi-obsessively following all the buzz around it since it premiered at Sundance earlier this year, and was fascinated. Obviously the cast alone makes Sorry To Bother You noteworthy: the film sports an almost unholy combination of talents, including Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, Omari Hardwick, Jermaine Fowler, Danny Glover, and the voices of David Cross and Patton Oswalt. It’s got a fascinating first-time writer/director in rapper Boots Riley, and a plot involving black telemarketers affecting a “white voice” in order to succeed in their calls. All that, plus murmurs of “surrealism” and “giant-cocked horsepeople” popping up in every review, and I knew I had to get my eyeballs on this one. What I didn’t know, however, was what to expect.
And that’s what makes writing my own review of this one so hard. Because Sorry To Bother You was everything I could have hoped for, and so much more. It deserves every breath of hype it’s received. But it also benefits from a more or less cold viewing, of walking in knowing only the barest bones of the plot and being ready for anything. I kept trying to think of how to describe it: It’s like David Lynch, only more political. David Cronenberg, but funnier. Mike Judge, but dreamier. Michel Gondry, but with a message. It’s like so many things you’ve seen, almost — yet it’s wholly singular. Riley said during the screening Q&A that the film comes from a place of not knowing the rules of filmmaking, and that’s the best description to give it. It was made by a musician who wasn’t blinded by the expectations of what a movie should or shouldn’t be, and so the finished product feels refreshingly free.
And if that’s enough to get you to give it a shot, just stop reading here and check it out for yourself when it hits theaters on July 6th — but if you feel like you need a bit more to go on, let me dig a little deeper.
The plot does begin with telemarketers. Specifically, a newbie named Cassius Green (Stanfield), who so impressively faked his way through his job interview that he’s hired on the spot. It’s a miserable cubicle job, and none of Cassius’s counterfeit trophies could have prepared him for it. So he’s largely failing until a wise older co-worker (Glover) shares some sage advice: The trick to successful telemarketing is to use a “white voice” — as in, sound like a white guy. A guy without a care in the world. A guy who doesn’t even need this job at all. It turns out that Cassius’s inner white voice sounds an awful lot like David Cross doing a Mr. Show bit.
This is just the launchpad for the rest of the film, which takes place in an alternate Oakland where people watch a show called “I Got The Sh#t Kicked Out Of Me” and a disruptive start-up called WorryFree is promising a new workplace model: communal living with bunkbeds and free meals, all for the low low cost of signing a lifetime contract guaranteeing your labor. If that sounds less like a Silicon Valley darling and more like, well, slavery with a fresh coat of paint, that’s because it fucking is — and there are plenty of groups that recognize it. Cassius’s girlfriend Detroit (Thompson) spends her days as a professional sign-twirler and her nights as an artist — but her free time is dedicated to defacing WorryFree billboards as part of an underground Banksy-esque art collective. Most of this is going on in the background of the film, while Cassius finds himself fighting to unionize with his coworkers — until his newfound “white voice” success gets him promoted upstairs to where the big deal power-callers work (in an office only accessible by a fancy, overly friendly elevator that requires a ludicrously long access code).
It’s at this point that the story picks up momentum, and the various threads start to come together in satisfying and sometimes gloriously unhinged ways, and I don’t want to spoil it. What I can say is that the message of the movie is a wonderful mix of the political and the personal. Or rather, it finds a way to make the political feel personal. It’s about disenfranchisement on an institutional level, but also about the feeling of questioning your own worth because you exist within that institution. Does your value come from within, or does it come from being deemed “valuable” by an employer? And how far are you willing to go to chase that validation? It’s an indictment of the cons happening in front of our very eyes, the things that seem so surprising when they’re revealed but which we’ve been complicit in from the start. It’s about selling your soul. It’s about doing what’s right. It’s about figuring out what’s really important.
All of which sounds preposterous, but don’t worry — Sorry To Bother You wraps those politics and personal philosophies in a lot of laughs and style. Some gags are purely visual — a perpetually-smoking car so busted that its windshield wipers have to be operated manually via a 2-person pulley system — while others are down to sharp writing. There is an epically polite argument where two characters wish each other well in a hysterical escalation of ways, all of which belies what they really want to say to each other. At one point Armie Hammer, as WorryFree’s wunderkind CEO, blows a 2-foot rail of cocaine. Detroit has an array of homemade earrings that deserve their own spinoff. Scenery unfolds and unravels around the characters, and with every telemarketing call Cassius makes, he is literally dropped into the home of the person he’s calling. Even if that person happens to be on the toilet.
Where the film ends is nowhere near where it began, but the journey is a delight and feels somehow inevitable. This film is inventive and absurdist, filled with pointed condemnation and something awfully close to hope, and for all the stylistic flairs and thoughtful messages, it stays rooted in characters that could have been caricatures if not for the specificity with which they were drawn. Some films are allegories wrapped in a plot; Sorry To Bother You is an honest story, wrapped in the trappings of allegory. And it is a joy to unravel.
Sorry To Bother You screened at the 2018 SXSW Film Conference and will hit theaters July 6th. *Image credit: Annapurna Pictures*