Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You ambitiously pushes the envelope of the sci-fi and comedy genres for a wholly unique, refreshing and hilarious film.
Boots Riley started his career in music, working as a rapper and producer throughout the ’90s and ’00s; he’s most well known as the frontman for hip-hop group The Coup. Riley makes his theatrical directorial debut with Sorry to Bother You, which he also wrote – both the script and many of the songs featured in the film. Sorry to Bother You premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it made a decisive impression on festival-goers, and the distribution rights were acquired by the auteur-focused Annapurna Pictures. Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You ambitiously pushes the envelope of the sci-fi and comedy genres for a wholly unique, refreshing and hilarious film.
Sorry to Bother You is set in an alternate present-day Oakland, California, and follows Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield). Cash is living in his uncle Sergio’s (Terry Crews) garage and gets a job as a telemarketer to make rent – and help his family pay for their home. However, Cash struggles to get people to listen to him over the phone and is unable to make any sales. An older telemarketer named Langston (Danny Glover) tells Cash that he needs to start using his “white voice” in order to make sales. Cash discovers he excels at using his white voice to land sales and he aims to become one of the company’s “power callers” alongside Mr. Blank (Omari Hardwick).
Meanwhile, Cash’s coworker Squeeze (Steven Yeun) starts organizing efforts within the telemarketing office to unionize, recruiting Cash and Cash’s friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler). Cash’s girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) also joins their movement when she gets a job at the company. However, when Cash starts making strides thanks to his white voice, his ambitions are revealed to be at odds with the unionization efforts of his friends. All the while, Cash and his friends’ lives are set against the backdrop of an economy bolstered by WorryFree, a company that offers housing and food for life in exchange for labor, run by Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). With different aspects of his life in conflict with each other, Cash must decide where his priorities lay and what he’ll do about them.
Sorry to Bother You is equal parts dystopian sci-fi and uproarious comedy, with a sharp message about the state of race, labor and capitalism in modern America. Riley pulls together these seemingly disparate threads for a movie that’s smart, stylish and wholly enjoyable. In his directorial debut, Riley demonstrates a unique eye that brings a great deal of freshness to the film, ensuring the director has now established a name for himself in the realm of auteur filmmaking. And, along with cinematographer Doug Emmett, Sorry to Bother You features a richness of color that brings the world of Cash, especially the numerous background elements marking the film as a dystopian alternate-present, to life with a great deal of vibrancy, all while finding beauty in the everyday.
The story of Sorry to Bother You is incredibly sharp, with Riley taking it in directions that are entirely surprising and, at times, surreal. Sorry to Bother You may not be the first film to deal with the conflict that arises when the American Dream of moving up in the world conflicts with a character’s morals, but Riley’s film does so with a sense of irreverence so complete that Sorry to Bother You stands wholly apart from any other film tackling the same themes. In fact, at certain points there’s a ridiculousness to the directions in which the story progresses that’s almost unbelievable, but Riley folds it into Sorry to Bother You in a way so that these developments still fit into the slightly off-kilter world he’s created. The story of Sorry to Bother You is smart, but it’s also an undeniably wild journey and viewers may simply want to strap in and enjoy the ride.
Of course, Sorry to Bother You also assembles an all-star cast of both established stars and buzzworthy up-and-comers. After supporting roles in Straight Outta Compton and Get Out, Stanfield steps easily into the leading role as Cash, helping viewers to empathize with the character and follow him on his wild ride through Riley’s world. Thompson, Yeun, Glover and Fowler put in compelling enough supporting performances, helping to round out and deepen the world surrounding Cash. It’s Hammer, though, who stands out the most after Stanfield, offering an especially fun turn as WorryFree CEO Steve Lift. Further, the “white voices” of the various characters – played by the likes of David Cross, Steve Buscemi, Patton Oswalt and Lily James – bring a great deal of humor to the movie. It’s undoubtedly a surreal aspect of Sorry to Bother You, but between the actors’ and voice actors’ performances, they help to ground this bizarre element and make it not only believable, but hilarious.
Sorry to Bother You is unlike anything else in Hollywood at the moment. Certainly, other filmmakers are producing sharp social satires, tackling race in modern America, and blending genres to push the envelope. Still, Sorry to Bother You stands apart as something so completely unique and forward thinking that it defies comparison to anything else. While that means Riley’s vision won’t necessarily appeal to every moviegoer, it does touch on universal themes – and, to be sure, it is hilarious. The summer release date suits Sorry to Bother You well since it’s an irreverent comedy with a great deal of silliness to balance its more grounded themes. Plus, it’s fantastic counter-programming to the mainstream action-heavy fare and family-friendly animated movies typical of the season.
Ultimately, Sorry to Bother You lives up to the Sundance hype, providing a refreshingly wild ride through Riley’s alternate-present as the filmmaker introduces Cash and the world around him. There is fun to be had in the silliness of Cash and the other characters’ white voices, as well as the twist and turns in this sci-fi/comedy, while also contemplating the film’s satirical message about labor and capitalism. Undoubtedly, Sorry to Bother You won’t be for every viewer, but it is a film to keep an eye out for this summer
Sorry to Bother You starts playing in limited release on Friday July 6 and expands on July 13. It runs 105 minutes and is rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use.
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