A film review by Craig J. Koban November 10, 2018


2018, R, 105 mins.


LaKeith Stanfield as Cassius 'Cash' Green  /  Tessa Thompson as Detroit  /  Steven Yeun as Squeeze  /  Armie Hammer as Steve Lift  /  Terry Crews as Sergio Green  /  Omari Hardwick as Mr. Blank  /  Patton Oswalt as Mr. Blank's white voice (voice)  /  Danny Glover as Langston  /  David Cross as Cassius Green's white voice (voice)

Written and directed by Boots Riley




The new absurdist black comedy SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is one of the strangest films that I've ever seen.  It's a work that - to its credit - defies basic genre classification.  It's part social/cultural satire, part  sci-fi parable, part broad workplace comedy, and part commentary piece about race, class, and capitalism run amok.  The film marks the directorial debut of Boots Riley, the Bay area rapper turned filmmaker, and his first film positively brims with audacious and bizarre originality.  

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is, as just mentioned, an exceptionally weird movie, perhaps almost too weird at times to allow for mainstream consumption, not too mention almost too weird for those with open minds that might have a hard time swallowing some of the story's more late breaking narrative detours.  Nevertheless, Riley has crafted a fearlessly innovative, intrepidly funny, and morbidly topically film that'll be hard to shake for most after exiting the cinema.   

The story is set in a version of Oakland, California that could be best described as somewhat dystopian, but not in the apocalyptic manner of the term.  We're introduced to the film's hapless protagonist Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), who's so pathetically down on his luck and penniless that he lives in his uncle's garage.  Realizing that he has to pick himself up and prove his worth to his performance artist girlfriend Detroit (THOR: RAGNAROK's Tessa Thomson), Cassius decides to take a demeaning and low level job as a telemarketer to save enough money to get them both their own home and a fighting chance at happiness.  The company he works for is the amusingly named Regal View, and what he and his fellow telemarketers actually peddle over the phone is not altogether specified or unveiled.  All that we know is that, initially for Cassius, it's a job of soul crushing demoralization.   



Cassius' day-to-day grind at Regal View is hellish, to say the least, but he's given some kindly advice from one of his older and wiser coworkers (Danny Glover) when he tells him to use a more inviting "white guy voice" over the phone to lure in big game clients. Realizing that this may be a last ditch Hail Mary effort on his part, Cassius agrees to give it a try with his new white accent (which is actually dubbed in by David Cross, which never emerges as unfunny throughout), and within no time he realizes to his delight how well it works.  With a newfound pitch confidence, Cassius becomes an overnight sales success and eventually rises to the upper echelon rank of "power caller," which affords him the right to take a private elevator to an upper floor where other high rolling salesman work, which further affords Cassius opportunities to get cozy with high ranking company CEO Steve Lift (a delightfully hammy Armie Hammer).  As Cassius becomes successful and wealthy, he learns about the darker underbelly of Lift's company, which dabbles in slavery and weapons dealing.  Cassius then uncovers an even more nightmarish truth, which forces him to radically re-evaluate his place within the company that gave him his livelihood. 

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is exceptionally weird (did...did I say that already?).  There's a sort of free-wheeling and never-look-back tenacity of spirit and tone here of the films of Terry Gilliam cross morphed with the slapstick office based comedies of a Mike Judge.  Adding to the film's already eclectic mixture is the stylistic trappings of a Michel Gondry and you'll start to get a better idea of Riley's peculiar world here.  His Oakland, for example, is basically from our plane of existence, but the society built around it seems almost more unhealthily fixated on, for example, horrendous diets of bad reality TV shows like "I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me" (which, yes, is exactly as advertised).  Then there is the whole popular nature of WorryFree, which passes itself off as a congenial minded corporation that's only out to make life better for citizens, even when it becomes abundantly clear that slavery (and...other diabolical experiments) are the norm for their day-to-day operations.   

Riley is also a gifted visualist here, and SORRY TO BOTHER YOU has a distinctively innovative sense of striking imagery that stands out and sets itself apart.  One recurring motif is showing Cassius literally crashing down on the lives of the people he's trying to call while on the job, oftentimes to hilarious effect.  In one instance he "drops in" on a couple having sex and in another with an elderly woman that's become mentally unraveled with the news of her husband's terminal illness.  There's also a splendidly inspired transition as Cassius' garage based apartment morphs before our eyes into a lavishly decorated condo that reflects the character's financial assertion.  On a level of conceptual imagination, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU has a hypnotic and surrealistic allure that works exceptionally well in its favor and Riley seems always equal to the task of giving his film a distinct aesthetic personality that's wholly its own. 

As for its satirical themes, the film also joyously swings for the fences, and even when Riley sometimes doesn't hit home runs you just have to admire his willingness to simply go with his underlining material.  On simple levels, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is a damming indictment of workplace culture, especially those that demoralize employees to the point of depression.  The fact that Cassius, a black man, has to use a white voice to get sales is preposterous, but it also highlights what a maddening and exaggerated world he (and perhaps we) live in.  It's also a sad testament to the lengths that Cassius will go to in order to essentially sell his soul and sense of ethnic identity to become an occupational success story.  Then there are the other themes of corporate greed and the deplorable levels companies sink to in order to make an extra buck, which prompts Cassius into a crisis of conscience when he begins to fully realize that he does indeed work for a truly evil empire that has robbed him of an identity and has destroyed other lives in the process.  SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is scathingly hilarious throughout, but like great works of satire its makes serious points about multiple social ills, in its case regarding white power, fractured race relations, and selling one's principles to get rich (while turning a blind eye to wrongdoing).   

That, and SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is exceptionally weird (did...did I say that already?).  I'm an accepting chap when it comes to daringly strange movies, but there reaches a point in Riley's story (without going into wanton spoilers) where it perhaps tries to skillfully navigate through too many characters, too many subplots, and too many ideas for its own good, which culminates in a frankly ape shit crazy third act that dabbles into pure fantasy, replete with one shocking plot twist that will undoubtedly alienate many a viewer.  During these late stages I felt that SORRY TO BOTHER YOU was going for more cheap shock value than any further and thoughtful analysis of its themes.  There's a good case to be made that the last third of Riley's movie implodes on itself by being...well...too weird...and to off-putting effect.  Plus, the running time here does it no favors either, especially when Riley's energized, shoot-from-the-hip style probably would have worked better with some generous editorial trims here and there.  The early sections of SORRY TO BOTHER YOU have an explosive forward momentum and drive, which are stymied by its scattershot focus later on.   

Still, I'm hard pressed to name another razor sharp social satire quite like this one, and one that generates ample laughs and contains big ideas that amusingly - and unnervingly - speak to larger societal truths about the consumer world we live in.  Watching SORRY TO BOTHER YOU I was frequently reminded of MANDY (also from this year), another work of brazen stylistic imagination that also took calculated risks and traversed down some insane plot turns that reveled in pure nonsensical make-believe.  SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is a bit too scattershot and ill focused at times, but it highlights a revitalizing filmmaking talent in Boots Riley as a potential force to be reckoned with moving forward.  His film may be exceptionally weird (did...did I say that already), but it's admirable strange and doggedly avoids conventional classification, which is more than you can say for most films dominating multiplexes lately.  

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