Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Written and directed by Boots Riley
Everyone seems to already know who Boots Riley is except me. If you were caught off guard like I was, I’ll catch you up. Boots Riley was a member of two socially conscious rap groups that never broke into the mainstream. That’s literally it. How has anyone heard of this dude? Not that I’m opposed to left-leaning rap lyrics, but nobody I know has ever brought up the name Boots Riley. Anyway, after his rap career, Riley decided to get some things off his chest in a new way, so he wrote his first film, “Sorry to Bother You.”
In a fantasy Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lives in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tess Thompson), until he gets a job at a telemarketing company and quickly moves up the ranks to become a Power Caller. The problem is, the Power Callers peddle some immoral shit for some shady dudes, like Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), and Cash’s woke artist girlfriend doesn’t like it. Neither do his telemarketing friends (Steven Yeun and Jermaine Fowler), who are trying to start a union and stand up against the telemarketing company’s unfair labor practices. Cash likes being good at something. And he needs the money. But at what cost?
“Sorry to Bother You” is beautifully effed up, but sometimes it prioritizes style over substance, and other times it tries so hard to stuff too much socially conscious substance into too little space. Maybe Riley felt that he’d only have one shot to write a movie that people would see, so he tried cramming three or four first films into one. But when you remember this is the guy’s first screenwriting credit, it’s actually a remarkable effort. The dark social comedy reminds one of “Get Out” at times, but its personality is all its own. It’s super weird, but the weirdness never distracts from the story. It helps it. And the anti-capitalism slant is right-on. Bravo for sticking it to the man in such a refreshing way, Boots.
Armie Hammer is at his most “12 Years a Slave”-esque since that Oscar-nominated role…not in terms of quality, but because of his character’s slaveowner-ish qualities. It’s brilliant casting. But we don’t get to see very much of him. Danny Glover neither, though their presence in the trailers might lead you to think so. But when the alternative is Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, you can’t really complain. Stanfield gives a breakout performance—we saw a flash of brilliance in “Get Out,” but to this point his biggest success has been on television, in Donald Glover’s “Atlanta.” Now, we can rest assured that the promise shown in “Atlanta” has been realized on the big screen. He gives one of the year’s most memorable performances. And Tessa Thompson has acting maturity way beyond her years. Since her major breakout in “Creed” (and before that “Dear White People,” which spawned an even better Netflix series), she’s shown her range in the tentpole blockbuster “Thor: Ragnarok” and the sci-fi fantasy “Annihilation.” In each one, she’s fantastic in totally different ways. She’s got range.
“Sorry to Bother You” is a wacky and at times abrasive slap in the face to anyone looking for just another theatergoing experience. Enjoy the unexpected.