"Sorry to Bother You" (2018) Review
I’ve been researching this movie a lot since I saw it.
For example, it turns out that the Production Design lead for Sorry to Bother You is Jason Kisvarday, the same man who did led the Production Design team for Swiss Army Man, a fact that makes a lot of sense after having watched both movies. Another example is that writer/director Boots Riley, the de facto leader of the musical group The Coup, had a music video in which the group had white actors play them as they dubbed their own voices in, and that’s before Riley and his crew recorded an album called “Sorry to Bother You” that was based on the then un-filmed screenplay he’d written for this movie. There are other bits of trivia that I could revel in, but the point is that there’s a lot of lineage that led up to the creation of this movie, and it shows.
Sorry to Bother You is an explosion of pure creativity, and unlike some films that get lost in their own creative ideas, this film keeps its focus squarely on the cold corporate world we live in. The film might be a comedy, but it’s a dark one, one that gets darker and bleaker the deeper you get into its runtime. Jason Kisvarday’s production design might be bright and colorful, but the design has a purpose: To disguise the horror of the modern world in plain sight, which is one of the film’s primary themes.
The story begins with the low point of Cassius Green’s life (Lakeith Stanfield). He’s unemployed and desperate, turning to a telemarketing job for the company RegalView. He’s bad at the job until an older co-worker named Langston (Danny Glover) gives him a hot-tip: Use his “white voice” on the phone to retain customers. Cassius finds that his white voice is perfect and he manages to climb the elusive corporate ladder at RegalView to become a “power caller.” This transition into wealth and power puts him directly at odds with his best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), his co-worker attempting to unionize named Squeeze (Steven Yeun), and his performance artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). But there are worse things awaiting Cassius than he could possibly imagine the deeper he moves into the corporate world…
And I have to leave the major story details at that. There were some early reviews out of Sundance that revealed this movie’s big “holy shit you’ve gotta be kidding me” moment, but I won’t do that here. Suffice to say there’s more at play here that moves straight into the realm of science fiction satire in a way that’s completely bonkers.
The satirical elements of this film are present from minute one though. Sorry to Bother You has a lot of bones to pick with the new world where corporations are people, and skewers damn near all of it. There’s a company in this film called WorryFree that sells a modern version of slavery (yes, really) that goes mostly unnoticed by the public at large in the film and it doesn’t feel as absurd as it should. That company’s CEO is Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), and we’ll get back to him later.
What’s so effective about the satire though is how much time is actually spent developing the characters, Cassius in particular. The constant sense of dread for the future is palpable in every single thing he does, no matter how practical or loathsome. I haven’t felt this bad for a main character in a movie in a long time (to be fair, I’m writing this review from a couch in an apartment in Austin, Texas also looking for employment out of slight financial desperation, so maybe I just saw this at the perfect time). A huge part of Cassius’ character though is Lakeith Stanfield’s restrained performance, only over-the-top in the parts where he speaks in his white voice (dubbed in by David Cross, who absolutely kills it here).
The other performers don’t slouch it either though. Tessa Thompson has yet to be bad in anything I’ve seen her in, but Detroit is a hilarious character that I’d watch another whole movie about. Her performance art piece in the film is so over-the-top that I quietly gasped laughter at the whole thing. Steven Yeun makes for a good supporting character as well, but the man of the hour ends up being Armie Hammer as Steve Lift.
Armie Hammer has been miscast for ages. It wasn’t until last year that Hollywood finally figured out what to do with him, and it’s a beautiful sight to behold. Hammer basically plays a coked out version of his twin characters in The Social Network and almost steals the whole movie. A party scene set in his mansion is an uncomfortable highlight of the entire movie, and a big part of that is Hammer’s performance (and partially because of a sequence that might be one of the biggest double middle fingers pointed at white people’s perception of rap music that I’ve ever seen in a movie).
It’s shocking how well all of the film’s many MANY ideas come together into a mostly cohesive whole. I say mostly because that’s the film’s biggest issue. Some of its tangents feel unexplored while others are literal Hail Marys put into the plot to resolve the ending.
But beyond that… Y’all, this movie needs to be seen to be believed. It’s an easy lock for my Top Ten Movies of 2018, and I wouldn’t be shocked if it cracked my top five on that list. Any missteps it has are more than forgiven for the pieces that it absolutely nails. It’s refreshing to see a satire like this hit most of its marks the way that it does and I can’t think of many compliments higher than that.
One last thing: This won’t mean much to many people, but for those who know these names, it was nice to see Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis prominently featured in the credits of a movie (if you don’t know who they are, don’t look them up until you watch this movie).