Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Going in to Sorry to Bother You, the initial mindset was that the film looked like an African American version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The science fiction comedy follows Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield, Get Out, Death Note) as he struggles with finding a job. Cash lives in his uncle’s garage and has a beat up car that barely works. He lands a job at a telemarketing firm thanks to a recommendation from his friend Sal (Jermaine Fowler). He has trouble landing any sort of sale until he listens to a fellow co-worker named Langston (Danny Glover) and embraces the utilization of his, “white voice.” Cash soon rises through the ranks and becomes a power caller. He becomes financially successful in ways he couldn’t even imagine, but throws away what’s really important to him to achieve his success.
Sorry to Bother You is the debut film for writer/director Boots Riley who has made a name for himself as a rapper and lead vocalist for the hip hop band The Coup and the rap rock supergroup Street Sweeper Social Club. As a first time screenwriter, Riley is an intriguing storyteller. Sorry to Bother You draws a fine line between art, morals, and decency while juggling a unique kind of humor and a creative vision. The film touches on having more of an imagination and a more definitive existence when you’re financially lacking compared to when you’re suddenly extremely wealthy.
As Cash struggles as a telemarketer, his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) finds imaginative ways to stand out as a sign spinner while fueling her passion as a political artist with a series of handcrafted earrings and an African themed art gallery. There’s an undeniable Michel Gondry aspect to Sorry to Bother You. The way the film seems to throw Cash directly in front of the person he’s calling as a telemarketer as they eat, cry, use the toilet, or make love is unusual yet brilliantly memorable. Cash’s day to day life with something as simple as wiper duty on his car when it starts raining has a Be Kind Rewind feel to it that showcases how something simple can be wildly original.
The film dives head first into bizarre territory in its second half. It’s a concept that the trailers avoid and it feels like it comes out of nowhere when you’re watching the film. The jokes become more absurd with the longest pin number sequence in existence activating the elevator to Cash’s newfound power caller position and a battle of compliments between Cash and Sal that is so ridiculously great. The highlight may be when Cash is forced to rap in front of Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) and all of his guests. Lift’s intentions with selling slave labor and WorryFree Solutions are where things go bonkers.
It’s a funny concept in itself to have comedians David Cross and Patton Oswalt as the, “white voices” of Cash and his power caller supervisor Mr. _______ (Omari Hardwick, Kick-Ass), but to hear its execution is even more amusing. Cross and Oswalt are two of the whitest sounding guys out there, so they fit the roles perfectly. It’s strange that Sorry to Bother You targets Cash for selling out to success and sacrificing his friends for a financial boost yet totally glosses over how lame of a friend Squeeze (Steven Yuen, The Walking Dead) is. Squeeze is the one fighting for better wages and a union for his fellow co-workers and seems to be the one fighting for everyone else, but he also has a thing for Detroit and makes it well-known that he’s interested in her even before Cash screws up. Squeeze and Detroit do mess around, but Cash never finds out who Detroit was with. The love triangle is thrown aside for the weirdness in the final act, but the message Sorry to Bother You seems to convey is that friendship is a bond that shouldn’t be broken unless you’re both interested in the same girl.
The film seems to drag a bit after Cash stumbles onto Lift’s radical experiments. The progression of the film isn’t unreasonable at that point as it dives into Cash attempting to alert everyone through the media of his findings and realizing that selling out was wrong, but things seem to move a lot slower after Cash’s revelation. It could be a predictability factor since you seem to sense a happy ending coming, but the ending isn’t the issue as it is also unexpected and goes in an unseen direction. The story of the protagonist starting off poor, becoming rich, stepping on everyone including those close to him to reach the top, and then atoning for his behavior isn’t entirely new, so maybe that’s what feels familiar and tiresome.
From a first time screenwriter and director, Sorry to Bother You is an impressive and hilarious debut for Boots Riley. The film stumbles a bit at times, but is a unique experience overall. Riley is an extraordinary visionary with an offbeat comedy that will stand out and be memorable for years to come.
© 2018 Chris Sawin