Written and directed by rapper and founding member of The Coup, Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You is a brilliant satire about life in corporate America – quite possibly the finest put to screen since Thank You for Smoking. But what elevates this film from just being really good and really funny to the pantheon of 2018 cinema is in the ways that it subverts normal satirical style, allowing for easy, subtle jokes to mix in with extreme, over-the-top, almost Jonathan Swift-esque folly as it tackles everything from economics to race to viral fame to art with an absolutely magnetic wit.
The tone is set immediately in one of the first scenes, as Cassius Green (who goes by “Cash,” in case his name wasn’t completely on the nose), played by an amazing Lakeith Stanfield wakes up in his bed with girlfriend, Detroit (her parents wanted to give her an American name), played by Tessa Thompson, who should just be in everything. The two are about to get intimate with each other in Cash’s room, when their canoodling is interrupted by a large, loud door opening, revealing that Cash lives in a garage, specifically that of his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews), who is desperate to get Cash’s back rent because he needs to make vital repairs to his house or risk losing it.
It is with this urgency, along with his desire to support his artist girlfriend, that he gets a job as an entry level telemarketer at a company called RegalView. The opening scene depicts his interview for the job, which he secures in part due to a recommendation from his friend, Sal (Jermaine Fowler), and mostly because he forged awards for his speaking skills and salesmanship. Even after his lies are exposed, he gets the job because the boss recognizes that he “has drive, and can read.” From that point, he joins the call center, being told from three different, almost Greek Chorus-like supervisors of differing emotional states (including one named Diana DeBauchery, which is pointed out that it spells “debauchery,” but isn’t pronounced that way – I was hoping for some kind of payoff of her being a literal corporate whore, but we didn’t get it, sadly) that if he can “Stick to the Script,” and sell well, he might get promoted to be a “Power Caller,” a higher life Cash can see on his first day, as a mysterious man dressed like a pimp enters an exclusive elevator to his job while the rabble must take the stairs.
Cash’s first few days are a bit rough. Not only does he not make any sales, but Boots Riley makes the delightful creative decision to show just how jarring this line of work can be from the caller’s perspective (informed by his own previous experience). While a copy machine literally erupts with paper in a room behind him, every call Cash makes whiplashes him into the home of the person he’s calling, giving us a taste of the lives he’s interrupting, and how weird this must all be to do if it were one on one in person. One call hangs up on him, another becomes extremely upset when he uses “the script” to try to turn her personal tragedy into a selling point. A third call hilariously drops Cash right into the middle of a couple having sex on a couch.
Finally, after a few days he gets some sage advice from an older worker named Langston (Danny Glover), a clear reference to the Harlem Renaissance poet, to use his “white voice,” an affectation he puts on that makes him sound like a white person, and therefore non-threatening. It is however noticeable to us in the audience that things aren’t quite right, as the overdub never quite matches the lip movements of the characters. Everything else is synced up perfectly, but this never does. In fact there are several shots where the characters’ faces are obscured by shadow, to make the whole thing seem that much more foreign.
Anyway, using that voice (for Cash it’s overdubbed by David Cross, because of course it is!), Cash finds quick success, and rises up the ranks to become a Power Caller (picked as a diamond in the rough as his coworkers are attempting to unionize), an elite salesman who takes that gilded elevator to the top floor – once it’s initiated by an absurdly long security code and the ride is narrated by a computerized voice (Rosario Dawson) getting him sexually excited to do his work – where he brokers insanely high level deals under the supervision of that pimp-like executive known only as Mr. _____ (Omari Hardwick, and his “white voice” is Patton Oswalt – because again, of course).
Now, if that were the whole story, this would be an absolutely fine and funny bit of corporate satire with a believable racial backdrop and context, given that it’s set in Oakland. I don’t think anyone would complain, and there would be some genuine laughs to be had. But Boots Riley and company aren’t content to rest on their laurels when there’s so much more to lampoon, both subtly and overtly.
Take the whole “white voice” concept in its instance. It’s one thing to tell a black man that the only way he can succeed is to pretend he’s white. But that’s not the core joke. That’s just the surface zinger. As Langston explains, it’s not just “Will Smith white, that’s just talking proper.” What he’s talking about is projecting the image of a white man who has no worries. “His bills are paid. He’s never been fired, just laid off.” That’s the brilliance at play here. It’s not just a white man, it’s the ideal of the suburbanite, middle class white man who doesn’t have any real-world problems, just a man going about his business that you can talk to about your business while he sells you shit you don’t need. That’s next level, right there.
On the flipside, you have these grander plot elements that are bombastically absurd serving this narrative as well. Peppered throughout the film are two ever-present background elements that of course come to the forefront by the time it’s all said and done. The first is a company called WorryFree, which offers the working class a life without worrying about bills or living expenses, because they sign a lifetime labor contract and live in bunk beds with their families at the factories. I’m sure Scientology will be suing any day now. The company is run by the hedonistic startup billionaire Steve Lift, played by an electric Armie Hammer. He’s literally half Steve Jobs, half tech-bro creep (in this case parodying Lyft, because calling him Steve Uber would have just been too obvious), and an example of everything wrong with our current capitalist state. He is literally enslaving people, and yet because he’s profitable Congress and the Courts go out of their way to equivocate and declare that what he’s doing isn’t slavery.
The second omnipresent gag is America’s most popular TV show, called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me, where people literally go on TV and get beaten up for laughs. I imagine the title is a reference to the once popular web prank spoof series, Kicked in the Nuts. It’s there to serve as a statement on the utter idiocy of viral fame and America’s priorities as their society crumbles around them. I’m sure Mike Judge fans are nodding from their couches as they watch Idiocracy for the 100th time and cry.
That theme is further explored in the third act, where Cash himself becomes a victim of the moment. While being escorted to work through a striking picket line of call center workers (led by Sal, Detroit, and their friend Squeeze, played by Steven Yeun), a woman hurls a soda can that hits Cash directly on the forehead (knocking some eventual sense into him), and because she filmed it for YouTube, she becomes instantly famous, to the point that there are Halloween costumes of an afro wig with a soda can attached to it to represent Cash, and the woman herself gets a record contract, no doubt a reference to our baffling societal fascination with the “Cash Me Ousside” Girl last year.
The story eventually comes to a head on two fronts. On the one side, Cash and Detroit’s relationship suffers under his newfound success, but it’s not lost that she too plays the “white voice” game (hers is Lily James) when putting on her grand art display. She too needs to make a living despite her anti-establishment leanings, including the most fab protest earrings of all time, and the fact that she’s a member of the “Left Eye” organization fighting against WorryFree (and I’m assuming eventually the surviving members of TLC).
On the other end of the spectrum, Steven Lift takes a liking to Cash, and wants to use him to make WorryFree an even bigger presence in the corporate world. After a party in which Cash literally has to put on a hip hop version of a minstrel show to appease the nearly all-white attendees (Mr. ____ is the only other minority present), he discovers the next phase of Lift’s grand scheme, which is a left turn I did NOT see coming. It’s almost as fucked up as some of the moments in Hereditary, except, you know, germane to the story. I won’t spoil anything, but let’s just say it gives whole new meaning to the term, “workhorse.” This leads to Lift having to lay his cards on the table and try to recruit Cash into his scheme, which leads to a very surreal “Every man has his price” bluff, as well as the most off-base interpretation of the Civil Rights Movement I’ve ever heard. But again, that’s the point, and Hammer plays it to perfection, thanks to Riley’s dialogue, which wouldn’t seem out of place as an appendix to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”
Like I said, this is the best satire I’ve seen in years. It’s masterfully written and directed, with a wonderfully game cast from top to bottom. And again, what elevates this to “above and beyond” status is the fact that Boots Riley wasn’t just satisfied with doing an okay allegory to race and corporate politics. He decided that everything was fair game, and everything relevant to the story got its bones rattled. The audience did, too, especially when it turns out that the satire hits a bit close to home these days.
But more than anything, I can’t say enough about Lakeith Stanfield’s performance. This makes the second film in as many years – the other being last year’s breakout hit, Get Out – where he’s had to play a gentrified “white” version of himself. In the previous film, his character was kidnapped and enslaved by the weirdo brain surgery that put an old white man’s consciousness into him. Here, he must relinquish some of his identity to pass as white in order to make sales, but he’s still the token minority and scapegoat on the larger corporate stage. It’s amazing how well he takes to this material, because through it all, the best word to describe him is “human.” No matter how we judge his actions, we can all empathize with the human decisions he has to make, both for himself and others, throughout the film, in spite of all the attempts to rob him of that very humanity, and Stanfield plays it better than most could even hope to.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite satire? What would you do if you literally dropped in through the ceiling on two people banging? Let me know!