Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Danny Glover, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews, Kate Berlant, Michael X. Sommers, Danny Glover
Director: Boots Riley
Running time: 1 hour 45 min
by Jericho Cerrona
Cassius Green, the lead character in indie rapper/activist Boots Riley's feature debut, Sorry to Bother You, is the kind of guy stuck working menial jobs while living out of his uncle's garage and engaging in long-winded discussions with his artist girlfriend about the meaningless of existence. It's the type of character we've grown accustom to in the movies; i.e. the underachiever who tumbles into a position of power with the added curse of "selling out". However, as played by nimble actor Lakeith Stanfield (of TV's Atlanta and Jordan Peele's Get Out), there's a laconic earnest here which somewhat offsets the lack of a compelling arc. Honestly, Riley isn't considered with character growth, narrative momentum, or thematic cohesion. Even the name Cassius Green is a pun; exemplified by Stanfield paying 40 cents for gas during one early scene. In short, Sorry to Bother You is a satire on capitalism, code switching, modern media, and the line between art and protest; starting out as a broad takedown of how corporations exploit minorities before devolving into absurdist sci-fi farce. There's anger, humor, and boldness here, but Riley's inability (or unwillingness) to differentiate his compulsive ideas from the flimsier ones eventually means the film loses sight of its satiric targets. In the end, the writer-director isn't so much purposefully taking aim as he is spraying concepts all over the place like ridiculously long security codes.
Taking place in an alternate-reality version of Oakland, Sorry to Bother You initially feels like a ramshackle hangout movie in which Cassius and his artist/protestor girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) are up against systems built to subdue them. Once our central hero gets a job at a telemarketing firm called RegalView, however, the film switches into the realm of satire not dissimilar from Mike Judge's Office Space, except with the added notion of racial code switching. By "sticking to the script" and heeding the advice of fellow black telemarketer, Langston (Danny Glover), Cassius adopts his "white voice" (provided by comedian David Cross), and finds himself becoming a near overnight success. With rent overdue, and his uncle (Terry Crews) threatening to toss him out of the garage and into the mean streets of Oakland, he begins an upwards ladder climb from measly drone to "power caller"; a hallowed term invoking a major promotion. Of course, Cassius is unaware that he's actually selling unsuspecting clients a voluntary forced-labor system called Worry Free Living; glimpsed sporadically throughout the film via intentionally cheesy TV advertisements and billboards.
Drawing influences from Spike Lee, Michel Gondry, Adult Swim, and Robert Downey Sr's hilarious 1969 satire Putney Swope, Sorry to Bother You reflects the unhinged craziness of living in America as a person of color. Some of the film's best jokes ride that line between uncomfortable recognition and outrageousness; such as a moment where Cassius is asked to rap for a crowd of white people inside the mansion of Worry Free's coke-snorting CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). The scene at first plays like a riff on safe spaces invented by whites in order to feel "woke", but as Cassius begins shouting the n-word repeatedly, Riley focuses on the crowd's enthusiasm for being given the opportunity to utter the most racist term in the English language. In other words, a perfect encapsulation of Trump's America.
As Cassius moves to a higher floor in the company's building, snags a fancy apartment, and eventually gets an offer straight from the CEO himself, one can sense Riley's grip on the satirical force of his screenplay loosening. Though the swerve into dystopic sci-fi is a brash move, the sense of topical anger dissipates around this point; giving way to repetitive gags and a sloppily executed finale which attempts to merge pointed social critique with body horror weirdness. It's one thing to admire a filmmaker swinging for the fences, and another to feel the heart sink when it becomes clear there are no rules to Riley's alternate-version of reality.
Had the film been able to tighten its satirical crosshairs and make Cassius into more than simply a ideological pawn, then it may have transcended the third act slide into B-movie silliness. Making us laugh at the painful truth behind all the absurdity while also engaging us emotionally with the characters would have been ace, but Riley instead chooses to coast on strangeness as a means to an end. What the film seems to miss is how the real key to changing hearts and minds is found within impassioned human beings; people willing to fight against political, social, and psychological realities. Unfortunately, Sorry to Bother You, despite its tonal audaciousness and wry observations, is too preoccupied with quirky art installation versions of the way we live now to concern itself with the messiness of genuine revolution.