SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Reviewed by: Harvey Kartne
Director: Boots Riley
Screenwriter: Boots Riley
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, Omari Hardwick, Jermaine Fowler, Danny Glover
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 6/13/18
Opens: July 6, 2018
Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You” is an Orwellian kick in the groin of capitalism with one scene sending up a form of communism that has a labor force working and sleeping in the same dormitory, China style. In other words, it’s a satire like that combines the contradictions of communism in “Animal Farm” with a caustic look at a modern “1984.” The first two-thirds, which constitute a clever look at the job of telemarketers selling print encyclopedias (encyclopedias? In 2018?), which is imaginative enough even while looking Kafkaesque yet rooted in reality, while the final segment, which turns to full-blown surrealism, is surprisingly the less interesting part.
Rapper Boots Riley, the picture’s Chicago-born African-American director and screenwriter, unfolds his freshman feature with a focus on Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), an out-of-work dude who gets along just great with his significant other, Detroit (Tessa Thompson—who you’ll remember for her role as Samantha White in Justin Simeon’s “Dear White People”). However he might question whether his Afro in 2018 would make him a hit with potential employers in corporate settings. However, as a telemarketer, with Regalview, he need not be groomed for success, though he is advised by the gent in the next cubicle (Danny Glover) to use a white voice.
All is under the supervision of his manager (Michael X Sommers), who reminds the workers to STTS (Stick to the Script), an unusual request given that “Sorry to Bother You” does not stick to any script familiar to rank and file filmmakers. Though his name sounds like “Cash is Green,” he needs a job badly as he is in debt to his uncle (Terry Crews) with four months’ rent due on his garage that serves as his living quarters. Regalview comes across as just the thing to get him out of the poorhouse when he turns into a crack salesman, but he is about to sell out to his working-class stiffs when Squeeze (Steven Yeun) organizes a strike just as Cassius is promoted to the upper level where the big boss, Steven Lift (Armie Hammer), lets him on a secret: the company uses telemarketers as a front. Its real goal has nothing to do with pushing encyclopedias but is engaged in a revolutionary system that will find its stock soaring through the roof.
Riley uses special effects that are usually the purview of more experienced filmmakers. For example, when Cassius phones a potential customer, he does not stay in his cubicle but crashes (surrealistically) into the homes of the people who are more disturbed by his in-person pitch than you have ever been when you have the option of hanging up the phone.
As the film progresses, strikes are called, cops are brought in to break through the picket lines, and Cassius must regularly go through the line to get to his upper floor where he is free to sniff Steve Lift’s coke (though the big boss has increased strength of the white powder to strange effect), listen to the Man’s convincing talk on why he must continue with his new job, and is promised a salary of one hundred million dollars if he goes with a five-year contract. Steve Lift must be hallucinating with the coke or giving young Cassius the job of a lifetime—or over one hundred lifetimes.
When the movie goes gonzo, boredom may set in and scripter Riley’s train does not only threaten to go off the rails but turns somersaults and lands upside down. But a demonic imagination is at play in a film that may be this year’s biggest challenge to more formula-bound film releases, egging them to ditch the tried-and-true in favor of trippy hallucinations.
Unrated. 111 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B