Sundance 2018: Sorry to Bother You, by David Bax
At first, Sorry to Bother You, the feature directorial debut of musician Boots Riley, appears to bear a resemblance to the films of Quentin Dupieux (Rubber, Wrong). With its thick outer layer of absurdity, the early scenes are vignettes of an alternate reality version of quotidian life. Before too long, though, Riley’s satirical aims rise to the surface and then very much stay there, proving that he’s got something to say. The result is more than worth a listen.
Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green, a down on his luck Oakland man living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage. When he gets a job as a telemarketer, though, he quickly discovers a talent for sales that leads him further and further up the ladder of corporate America. The terrific supporting cast includes Tessa Thompson as Cassius’ artist girlfriend, Jermaine Fowler as his best friend, Omar Hardwick as a similarly gifted salesman, Armie Hammer as a titan of 21st century industry, Kate Berlant as a middle manager, Steven Yeun as a labor organizer and, most delightfully, Danny Glover, who says the word “motherfucker” more times in any one of his scenes here than in probably the rest of his career combined.
As satire, Sorry to Bother You is unapologetically unsubtle. Yet it still feels well-observed and finely tuned to the realities of the white collar workforce. You’re meant to go along with the company’s insistence that you’re all a team and/or family, or at least pretend to. But no matter how far you rise, there’s always someone above you with a job to covet (not to mention someone in your personal life around whom to feel guilty for your success). It feel unnatural yet there’s a kind of logic to it. In fact, one of Riley’s best jokes is that Hammer’s villainous billionaire isn’t a madman; if anything, he’s insanely reasonable.
It will come as no surprise to fan’s of Riley’s musical career that the soundtrack is driving and eclectic, with scenes often linked by extended blasts of fierce and funky music. Meanwhile, he adorns the frame with delightful visual gags and pleasures, especially in the building where Cassius works. Like in Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2, Sorry to Bother You crams disparate worlds into one towering building, from the lower level’s cluttered rat cage cubicles with little indicator lights for every sale made to the minimalist, exposed beam luxury of the top floor, where the “power callers” ply their trade.
Much of Sorry to Bother You‘s imagery is broadly comedic, such as a person being slapped around with a fish in what appears to be a direct Monty Python homage. Other instances are more thematically relevant, like the head wound Cassius gains that won’t seem to heal as long as his integrity has been compromised. In all these instances and more, though, Riley is telling us something other than his movie’s message. He’s announcing that he’s a new cinematic voice to listen to.