Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), the beleaguered protagonist of Sorry to Bother You, has problems. Young, black, and unemployed in Oakland, Calif., he’s living in his uncle’s (Terry Crewes) garage and four months behind on his rent. He’s so desperate – and so lacking in shame – that he has a fake Employee of the Month plaque made up, which he brings along to interviews as (fraudulent) proof of his past gainful employment. (It’s a kind of splinter of the True Cross for the gig economy.) A hiring manager (Robert Longstreet) at the RegalView telemarketing company calls him on this con, but then waves away the deception: He just needs warm bodies to answer phones and sell encyclopedias. Cash takes the job, because what else is he going to do? It’s a paycheck, and at least his easy-going friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) works at RegalView too.
Cash expects his politically conscious starving-artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), to be disappointed with his meager ambitions, but as a part-time curbside sign-twirler, she knows a thing or two about doing what needs be done to put gas in the car (40 cents at a time, on occasion). Eventually, she starts taking shifts at RegalView as well. Cash initially has trouble closing the deal with the company’s customers-cum-dupes: The film visualizes him dropping, Wallace and Gromit-style, into their living rooms, kitchens, and bathrooms to rattle off a canned script, where he’s treated as a nuisance to be swatted away. Then a RegalView old-timer named Langston (Danny Glover) gives him a crucial tip: Cash needs to use his “white voice” on the phone. In an incisive little exchange, the older man explains that said voice isn’t a standup comedian’s nasally impression of a white guy, but rather an attitude of ease and confidence, one that suggests no speed bumps on the horizon.
During drinks with his co-workers, Cash soon stumbles onto his own personal white voice (realized as David Cross), and it proves to be his secret weapon. Before long, he’s racking up commissions, breaking sales records, and eyeing the golden elevator in the lobby, the one reserved for the company’s so-called Power Callers. However, worker dissent is reaching a boiling point at RegalView, where fellow telemarketer Squeeze (Steven Yeun) is organizing a “phones down” strike to demand a wage increase – and catching Detroit’s eye in the process. Cash is all for just labor practices, in theory, but if he’s fired for rabble-rousing there aren’t many alternatives left to him. Other than a lifetime contract with WorryFree Solutions, a mega-corporation that offers rudimentary food, clothing, and shelter in exchange for endless drudgery.
The cheerfully dystopian WorryFree factory-prisons – omnipresent in advertisements, where whole families are depicted toiling on assembly lines and sleeping in cells – are just one of the signs that writer-director Boots Riley has something stranger and rowdier up his sleeve than a race-conscious workplace comedy. It gradually becomes apparent that Sorry to Bother You is set 20 minutes into the future in a kind of quasi-science-fiction alternate reality. In this universe, the most-watched show in America is I Got the S*** Kicked Out of Me, which is exactly what it sounds like. (Echoes of Where Are My Pants?! from The LEGO Movie and Climbing for Dollars from The Running Man, the latter of which involved contestants clambering up ropes to avoid snapping Dobermans.)
On balance, the film’s cockeyed vision of Oakland is more real than not. A minor visual gag about a manual workaround for a broken windshield wiper will ring achingly true for anyone who has sputtered their way to a menial job in a busted-up car. Between the package-liquor stores and scraggly football fields, however, one can sense the brave new lunacy of RoboCop (1987) and Idiocracy (2006) creeping closer and closer. Riley has simply updated the absurd extrapolations for the late 2010s; speculating, for example, that a breakout viral video star can become a talk-show host – with built-in soft-drink-sponsor synergy – in the space of 24 hours. (Hardly an unreasonable prophecy, given that a reality-show celebrity is already sitting in the Oval Office.)
Stalked by middle-management caricatures like the creepy Johnny (Michael X. Sommers) and the chipper Diana (Kate Berlant), the demoralizing cubicle farm at RegalView is cartoonishly dreary. Like the gray, charmless office occupied by the hero in Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) or the low-ceilinged Floor 7½ in Being John Malkovich (1999), however, it’s just plausible enough to scan as the fever-dream doppelgänger of a place everyone has worked at some point. (Everyone outside the One Percent, at least.) In contrast, the upper floors where the Power Sellers roam are full of glass-walled offices and cozy iPad workstations, with champagne showers for the big closers. The single-minded Cash eventually reaches this rarefied world, but his promotion to Power Seller obliges him to “sit on the sidelines” during his co-workers’ strike and eventually to cross their picket line. Detroit is disgusted by his decision to sell out, especially when she learns that he’s no longer pushing encyclopedias to schmucks but military weapons and WorryFree labor to the global elite.
The feature-film directorial debut of hip-hop artist Riley, Sorry to Bother You is a magnificently whack, utterly unclassifiable shot across the bow of both indie cinema and the crapsack world that is America in 2018. It’s an outlandish capitalist nightmare about the 21st century’s Faustian temptations – which, in truth, are the same glittering enticements that the Devil has always dangled. Yet the film is too frenetic and jam-packed with ideas to ever stoop to outright polemics. For better or worse, Riley eschews the quotable monologues featured in epochal satires like Dr. Strangelove (1964) or Network (1976). The screenplay simply has too much on its mind, and too much affection for delightfully digressive schtick. There’s a bit about a ludicrously long elevator security code that is straight out of a Coens feature, for example. Or consider a chest-thumping confrontation between Cash and Salvador, where Riley revels in the rattling, screwball way that the argument mutates into a back-slapping bro hug.
Between the film’s Get Out-tinged facility for capturing the intricacies of racial unease and its eventual jaw-dropping hard left into grotesque science fiction – evoking equal parts Tim Burton, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Tank Girl – there’s a lot going on in Sorry to Bother You. To Riley’s credit, this business seems less like a filmmaker indiscriminately throwing ingredients at the wall, and more like an eager first-time director trying to cram as many of his preoccupations as possible into his inaugural feature. In other words, the film tends toward the overstuffed, but nothing about it is half-baked. Like Armie Hammer’s coked-up Bezos-inspired billionaire Steve Lift – the WorryFree CEO who takes an uncomfortable shine to Cash – Riley’s feature buzzes with ideas, spattering so many sight gags and droll one-liners that it will likely take multiple viewings to unpack them all. Paralleling Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, the film seems destined for midnight-movie immortality.
Sorry to Bother You is impeccably cast across the board, although the supporting standouts are Hammer and Fowler – the latter always finding a way to coax laughs from a simple reaction shot. Stanfield (Atlanta, Crown Heights) is, unsurprisingly, essential to the films’ attitude. The actor’s huge, downcast eyes and uncertain little half-grins serve as crucial, humane landmarks in a film that grows ever more grimy and surreal during its 105-minute running time. Moreover, he renders believable Cash’s descent from a reedy, slump-shouldered bundle of existential despair and racial anxieties – he’s conspicuously insecure about his insufficient “blackness” – into a bellowing boiler-room alpha male.
Riley has a flair for juggling the banal and the weird, allowing the film to negotiate its more outrageous Wonderland swerves while still making room for morsels of relationship drama, radical politics, and banalities like a mea culpa over breakfast at a coffee shop (courtesy of Oakland gentrification). It’s only in its final stretch that Sorry to Bother You stumbles, mostly because Riley can’t find a way to satisfactorily wrap up the story's most ludicrous science-fiction twists. For a satire that otherwise vibrates with such demented energy, the film starts to founder a bit in its final 20 minutes. This is not the purposely anti-climactic petering out of, say, The Big Lebowski (1998) or Inherent Vice (2014), but rather the customary third-act aimlessness that often afflicts indie comedies. The film concludes with an unexpectedly restrained message, endorsing the preeminence of family, friendship, and simple pleasures in a world of ruthless exploitation. If such a politically mild punctuation mark feels somewhat disappointing, it’s also undeniably consistent with a story that so often illustrates the alienation that results from the division, ambition, and craving nurtured in capitalism’s Thunderdome.