SUNDANCE FILM REVIEW: SORRY TO BOTHER YOU Irreverently Scathes Social, Racial Woes
Sorry to Bother You was hands down the best movie I saw at the Sundance Film Festival. I realize that is not saying much—the fest by all accounts had an off year with little of transcendental substance to offer—but it is still saying something. The first feature film by rapper Boots Riley, the movie stars Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out) as “Cash” Green, Tessa Thompson, and Armie Hammer and in a farcical, irreverent, and surrealistic portrayal of our modern racial societal woes. It stays with you because it is bizarre, because it is intelligent, and perhaps because it repeatedly shows gigantic man-horse genitalia. Whatever does the trick.
Cash is a disaffected millennial: he lives with his leftist radical girlfriend Detroit (Thompson) in his uncle’s garage, trying to make ends meet but not really. He wants to make just enough to get buy and pay the woefully overdue rent, and have enough left over to mosey on along with his bodies. But when he begins working for a telemarketing form hell-bent on sucking the soul of its employees with kitschy mottos and unrewarding compensation, he and his pal Squeeze (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), get some unionizing ideas.
Before Cash and Squeeze can act, however, the voice of an elder (played by Danny Glover) gives Cash invaluable advice: speak in “white voice” during your telemarketing calls, and you will be successful. Soon, Cash realizes he is a natural for the job, with his charming charisma and irreverent wit, and finds himself on the way up the elevator to the executive suite where he eventually meets Steve Lift (Hammer) the owner of the firm and of a factor of humans-turned-slaves that he outsources to greedy corporate giants.
So the moral conundrum is thus simply but cleverly set up. How far should Cash go in betraying his principles—not just his ethical beliefs but his very race—to succeed. If offered an obscene amount of money to extract yourself from poverty (lets say, $100 million dollars) but you had to do morally reprehensible things, would you do them? The set up may seem cliché, and Sorry To Bother You insists that it does not mean any of it seriously, but it most definitely does.
Lying beneath the veneer of disaffected sarcasm, of cynical commentary and hopeless simplicity, is a cleverly urgent and radically smart movie about the demons that irreparably affect humans and that our best intentions perhaps cannot overcome. As Cash rises to the top of the corporate hierarchy, his choices become starker and the betrayal of his own soul becomes more pronounced. It is perhaps the filmmaker’s own mea culpa, a slight projection of his own anxieties about whether he has abandoned his fellow (black? Impoverished?) man in the name of fame and fortune.
Sorry To Bother You is a career-best performance for Hammer and Thompson (who we last saw in Thor: Ragnarok), both of whom use their attractive good looks with disinterested aplomb, completely in control of their environments. The way they are so sure of themselves contrasts violently with Cash, who is persistently conflicted. Detroit knows that sacrifice and principles are the only True way. Steven Lift believes in Money and Self only, to the point of grotesque human abominations. Both are caricatures, and that core lies the movies brilliance.
Riley skewers the political extremes that have led us to needless marches, to stupidly viral videos, to unnecessarily binary choices. But he also confesses his own doubt through the on-point Stanfield. He wants to believe both of them in a way, he sees their allure. And while in the end there is no doubt what side he ultimately lands on, the honesty is appreciated. The world can be a difficult and not so great place, Sorry To Bother You, insists, but we are more responsible for that than our self-congratulatory holier than thou attitudes may allow.
For a first feature, Sorry To Bother You is nothing short of impressive. The choppiness and “too smart for its own good” aspersions that one could fairly attribute to the movie are to be expected. And they are forgiven when you sit in awe of the fearless and exacting vision of contemporary life that the director so freely paints onto the canvas.