Sorry to Bother You is the story of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfeld). Green knows three things: he’s broke, he’s in love with Detroit (Tessa Thompson), and he desperately wants the means to provide for her. Green falls into a job as a telemarketer, where he struggles at first, but then a mentor-like figure (Danny Glover) gives him the ultimate tip—Green should use his white voice (dub-over by David Cross) to close sales over the phone. This new tactic propels Green into the status of overnight phenom and begins getting the love from management for the amount of money he’s raking in.
Green’s friends, many of whom work at the same place of employment, are less than the thrilled with the situation. While Detroit doesn’t initially begrudge Cassius’ windfall success, her ideology begins to shift to Squeeze’s (Steve Yuen) way of thinking that the employees are horribly mistreated and must unionize in order to fight for better workplace rights. This puts Green in tough position of loyalty as he must choose between the financial security he’s always dreamed of, and the people who have long supported him. Then the movie gets weird. Real weird.
What works in Sorry to Bother You includes Stanfeld’s performance and writer/director Boots Riley’s ability to blend genres while both being absurdist and purposeful. Stanfeld oscillates between confident, cowardly, confused, and comedic with incredible talent and his ability to do so in the crazy environments he finds himself makes his role as Cassius even more impressive. Stanfeld carries Sorry to Bother You on his shoulders, and his magnetic presence makes everything work, even when logic screams in the background that it shouldn’t. Sorry to Bother You is Stanfeld’s film as much as its Riley’s, and their partnership has yielded something truly unique and special.
Shifting to the writer/director, Riley bursts on the stage with his first film with tenacity so easily, one would swear that this is not his first rodeo. While Sorry to Bother You has some faults (more on that below), the cleverness sweeps them under rug swiftly. For example, when Stanfeld intrudes on others through cold calling, Riley literally puts him in the room with the potential customers, highlighting the awkwardness on both sides of the conversation. And while using a “white voice” is not entirely new, Riley’s execution through getting distinctive actors to provide such an audible mismatch with the on-screen actors his both hilarious and thoughtful. Riley has a reason for every decision he’s made and once that’s quickly apparent, it makes it much easier to trust him as the driver on the wild ride.
While Sorry to Bother You gives Stanfeld the opportunity to break out, Riley does falter a bit when it comes to the supporting cast. Thompson’s Detroit has little to do, save for one artistic performance that is likely to remind people of Maureen’s cow-over-the-moon monologue in Rent. Similarly wasted is Armie Hammer as a bro-tastic, drug-addled CEO of a corrupt company who gives his over-the-top performance his all, but the humor doesn’t quite land. Riley seems to have interesting ideas for each of the people Cassius’ life, but struggles to bring them to fruition.
It should be noted that Sorry to Bother You doesn’t deliver on what it is selling. This is intentional, but audiences should be forewarned that they should leave all expectations about genre and tone at the door. To watch Sorry to Bother You is to succumb to Riley’s whims and messages, both subtle and overt, about society. This is not a criticism. If we use the standard of judging a film on its ability to achieve what it set out to accomplish, then Sorry to Bother You is a resounding success. To say more would be to spoil the secrets Riley has in store, but people should know that strange things are brewing under the lid.
Sorry to Bother You is incredibly thoughtful, clever, and funny films. Its weirdness might be off-putting to some, but Riley clearly shows he is talent when it comes to storytelling.
Recommended if You Enjoyed: Get Out, Dear White People
Final Grade: A-
Photos Courtesy of Annapurna