Home Entertainment Review: Sorry To Bother You (20th Century Fox)

“This is telemarketing. Stick to the script.” ‘Sorry to Bother You’ is the striking 2018 debut of writer/director Boots Riley. Set in a dystopian now-future of an ersatz Oakland California, […]

“This is telemarketing. Stick to the script.”

‘Sorry to Bother You’ is the striking 2018 debut of writer/director Boots Riley. Set in a dystopian now-future of an ersatz Oakland California, the movie feels like the loud, bastard child of Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ (1985) and John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’ (1988). This film is biting and bold. It’s a cold-eyed conversation about capitalism, race, community and character that seems vital and timely. It’s about the power of viral social media, the unintended consequences of celebrity and about what happens when getting what you’ve always craved costs you everything you professed to care about.

It also happens to be hilarious. It’s a brutal, black comedy with scenes alternately side-splitting and cringe-worthy. The tone is locked in early on, in one of the most painfully uncomfortable job interview scenes I’ve ever seen set to film, and things subsequently spiral into deeper, darker levels of farce as it progresses.

In an ominous, alternate Oakland, economic inequality is squeezing a shrinking middle class hard. Exploiting this, entrepreneur Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) has created the WorryFree Corporation, a concern that profits off of a form of indentured service, providing food and lodgings for a lifetime of labor. Many view this as legalized slavery and a mysterious organization called the Left Eye is trying to turn public opinion against Lift by a variety of means.

Cassius ‘Cash’ Greene (Lakeith Stanfield) is hard up for money and overdue on his rent. Living with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his uncle Sergio’s garage (Terry Crews), he becomes even more desperate to find work when he learns that his uncle’s home is going to be foreclosed. He’s able to land a position in the lower bowels of the Regalview Corporation as a telemarketer after that agonizing job interview, but finds no success at the work at all until his more seasoned colleague Langston (Danny Glover), explains to him the secret key to sales: sounding white.

Using his new white persona (voiceover by David Cross), Cassius begins to make sale after sale and his superiors swiftly notice, floating a promotion to “Power-Caller” if he continues to perform. The Power Callers are on a different floor in luxurious accommodations, are paid salaries instead of only commissions and have benefits the regular callers only dream about. Conditions at the call-center are appalling and Cassius’ co-workers agitate for higher wages among other things. Led by his friend Squeeze (Steven Yeun), the workers vote to unionize, and Detroit joins them at the pickets. During the strike, Cassius is offered the promotion to Power Caller. In the opulent Power Caller suites, Cassius learns the sinister reasons Power Callers are compensated as well as they are. Initially aghast, his reservations crack and crumble when he sees the exorbitant salary and benefits he is being offered.

Cassius turns his back on his co-workers, abandons the union and the strike, and earns Detroit’s opprobrium with his greed. Blind to the repercussions of his actions by his pride in finally having a job that he does extraordinarily well (and ignoring the moral implications of his work), he’s able to pay off Sergio’s house, upgrade his wardrobe and his ride before moving on up to a deluxe apartment.

After he keeps bringing in the sales, he’s invited to a party with WorryFree’s Steve Lift. Decadent, racist and jaded, surrounded by supermodels, Lift does enough cocaine to kill Tony Montana to kick off the event. After humiliating Cassius, Lift inadvertently reveals the obscene future plans for the expansion of WorryFree while trying to recruit him.

And then things go completely bonkers.

The cast is well rounded. Joining Stanfield are Tessa Thompson, Danny Glover, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Armie Hammer, Steven Yeun, and the always-amazing Terry Crews. David Cross, Patton Oswalt, and Lilly James are the ‘white voice’ voiceover roles.

‘Sorry to Bother You’ is a complex film with a lot to impart. Reily has many plates spinning at the same time. However, this becomes problematic because instead of plot twists, it has zigs and zags. It doubles down at every conflict point in an enervating exercise in one-upmanship. Between the science-fiction, social commentary and the razor-cuts of the black comedy, the film is exhausting. The problem is that the movie never seems to resolve said conflicts so much as escalate and accelerate past them into absurdity.

Backed into a corner, the film shits the bed in its final act. The sharp over-the-top turn from dark satire to science fiction makes the movie unable to stick the landing and actually undermines the pointed and poignant messages on class, capitalism and race. It’s as if Reily turned all the runway lights on because he didn’t trust that the audience would find its way home.

That being said, this is an incredibly ambitious and largely successful piece of work. It’s beautifully shot, beautifully lit and crisply directed. It relies on an inspired visual idiom to make the oft-repeated refrain in a movie ostensibly about telemarketing, something as banal as two people talking on the phone, into some zippy and clever bits of filmmaking. Again, this is a very funny movie. Dark, stylized and truly surprising in parts (with one good jolt of a jump scare), ‘Sorry to Bother You’ denotes Boots Reily’s acumen and immense potential as an artist. If this is where his career starts, he has a great future in feature films.

In addition to the director’s commentary, the blu-ray special features include:

Beautiful Clutter:
A short documentary with Boots Reily discussing his creative process. From the start, he wanted to make an artistically important movie. He segues into talking about a how he wanted a nude scene for Stanfield in order to show Cassius’ absolute vulnerability. However he decided that the expressive Stanfield could easily display the same vulnerability in just his face and shot the scene accordingly.

Reily talks about his desire to make movies as an outgrowth of the desire he’d had since he was a child, which was to make music to move and inspire people. His band Coup signed a record deal while he was in film school and he directed their videos. He talks about how being a music producer for twenty years was vital to his success as a film maker because it taught him to exploit the knowledge of the people around him to further his vision. What drove him to make ‘Sorry to Bother You’ was in part the need to make something unique that wouldn’t be a black version of a already made white film. He discusses how blacksploitation arose out of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement and how all art is about communication. His art in particular is ridiculous, funny and weird because he says the world is ridiculous, funny and weird.

Then he talks about Detroit and making her character an artist, how her art and her desire to communicate to the world through her artwork were instrumental in centering the character. Reily imparts the differences in the techniques Thompson and Stanfield use and how they are perfect for the characters they are playing.

Reily notes that to him, aesthetic is more important than content when it comes to classifying a movie and that he wanted to have a “beautiful clutter”

It’s revealed why the movie is set in Oakland. The choice was made because of his love of the city on account of knowing ‘everybody’ through his past careers as youth organizer, party planner and weed dealer. He mentions that the art and party scene felt different in Oakland than in L.A. or New York, less hierarchical.

We are given his thoughts on how the character of Steve Lift represents the trend of new capitalism being “no” capitalism, the idea that making a workspace into a playroom may serve the insidious purpose of concealing the true nature and goals of a corporation. Hammer needed to make the audience believe that Lift believed he was doing the right thing.

Reily talks about his need to create art in a way that will serve a greater sense of justice and inspire others to create and act towards that greater justice. He notes that of all the cast he’d know Danny Glover the longest, who was a friend of his father.

After coming up with the basic concept of the film, he put together a screenplay. Patton Oswalt and David Cross both read it, liked it and told Reily he could use their names to promote and push it.

Promotional Trailers:

The Art of the White Voice:
Another short film with Patton Oswald and David Cross discussing how they discovered the perfect tone for the ‘white voice’

Meeting the Cast of ‘Sorry to Bother You’:
Interviews with castmates talking about how cool and talented their co-workers are.

Theatrical Trailer and Slide-Show Still Gallery.

About Dan Kleiner

Dan Kleiner is a strange visitor from another planet who resides in Brooklyn, New York with two cats and his amazing girlfriend. When not plotting world domination, he spends a great deal of his time watching movies and anime of all sorts, reading comic-books and book-books, studying politics and history and striving for the day when he graduates as a Class A-Weirdo.