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Sorry to Bother You

We got a weird one tonight, folks.

Sorry to Bother You was only made on a reported $1 million budget and it serves as the writing/directing debut of Boots Riley, a rapper with barely a single film or TV credit in any capacity before this picture. The film was produced by Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker (yes, that Forest Whitaker), both of whom helped to bring Fruitvale Station and Dope to the screen. And then of course we have Annapurna Pictures, a reliable distributor of arthouse darlings and awards contenders since 2011.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that this team offered up a racially-charged movie about a young black man trying to make an honest living as a telemarketer. I wasn’t surprised to hear that it was a workplace comedy. I wasn’t even surprised to hear that it racked up a Tomatometer in the high 90s.

But then this movie turned into something else and it took me totally by surprise.

The pacing in this is truly something to behold. It starts out subtle enough, with our protagonist (played by Lakeith Stanfield) struggling to get by on the mean streets of Oakland until he finally lands a job getting paid on commission as a telemarketer. Also at the beginning of the movie, our main character ruminates on the nature of mortality and the heat death of the universe, such that nothing anyone ever does will last forever or ultimately matter in the final analysis.

This kind of stuff is engaging enough for a decent workplace comedy, but there are already signs that something is amiss. To start with, our protagonist is named “Cassius Green” — that pun should be your first clue as to the heightened reality that we’re dealing with here. This is a workplace setting that’s definitely more bizarre than Office Space without getting into Being John Malkovich territory, but don’t worry — we’ll get there before the credits roll. Hell, we’ll get into Detention territory by the time all’s said and done.

What’s truly remarkable is that the film’s descent into bugfuck insanity is perfectly timed with Cassius’ rise to money and power. His first job interview is merely a show of mundane apathy from his prospective boss. Then his first few days on the job happen, and we see Cassius sink into the floor — desk and all — so he’s literally face-to-face with the people he’s calling… before the whole thing is revealed to be a visual metaphor.

Then Cassius starts to get the hang of his job, and this is when the movie introduces us to the concept of the “white voice”. I’m afraid there’s no way I can quickly or accurately describe the concept of the “white voice” in a text review, especially not when freaking Danny Glover appears in a brief mentor role to teach the concept so beautifully. Suffice to say that every halfway-successful person of color in this movie learns how to speak with the attitude and mannerisms of a white person. Thus we have multiple lengthy scenes in which the actors’ lines are dubbed by David Cross, Patton Oswalt, and Lily James. It’s hilarious and unsettling, and a fantastic device to show when the characters are being authentic as opposed to putting on a friendly and professional facade.

So Cassius works toward the mythical ranks of the “Power Callers”, without any knowledge of precisely what they’re selling or to whom. And when he finally figures that out, bang on cue, the movie hits us with a massive tidal wave of “what the fuck”. And it seems like that’s as crazy as the movie gets, until Cassius earns an invite to a drug-fueled bacchanalia with a hotshot billionaire named Steven Lift (played by Armie Hammer). And when that scene lets you think the madness couldn’t get any higher, Cassius learns about a far more lucrative potential job with Lift’s company, and that’s when the movie fucking buries the needle.

By the end of this movie, I had seen more plot development, character development, world-building, horror, humor, and incisive social commentary in 100 minutes than most other filmmakers could cram into a whole trilogy. And miraculously, all of these different parts and subplots seamlessly mesh together into a cohesive whole that plows along at a merciless pace. How could this be possible?

Well, obviously, a lot of that has to do with the talent involved. I’d say that Stanfield turns in a starmaking performance, but if you didn’t already know he was a world-class talent, you haven’t been paying attention. Tessa Thompson lights up the screen with every second she has, and Danny Glover is surprisingly good in his brief role. Armie Hammer proves for the umpteenth time that trying to make him a headlining talent would be a terrible mistake when he’s this damned great as a comedic supporting player. Terry Crews gets a delightful walk-on role, and Rosario Dawson has a hilarious voice-over cameo. In fact, all of the voice-over performers in this are a laugh riot. In fact, all of the minor supporting players get a laugh.

(Side note: Wikipedia tells me that Forest Whitaker got a cameo as well. Given the alleged context, I’ll have to take their word for it.)

Of course, the most crucial talent in this particular case was debut writer/director Boots Riley. It’s astounding to me how someone with barely any credited work in cinema could be this goddamn good at writing and directing such a bizarre and multifaceted movie with so many moving parts, and put them all together into something that’s not only functional but magnificent. He keeps everything clear, he keeps everything paced, he keeps everything balanced, and he does it all with style and attitude. This is a tremendous debut and we’ll all be supremely lucky if his next work is even half this solid or original.

But easily the most important factor in keeping all of this coherent is in the implicit theme shared by all the different subplots. We see it early on with the telemarketing supervisors who couldn’t care less about their employees, and Cassius’ ennui regarding the ultimate obliteration of the entire human race. Then we come to see it in the telemarketers’ ongoing struggle to unionize, fighting for a living wage. It’s there in Lift’s company — dubbed “WorryFree” — in which people basically sign up to live in a prison so they can work as slaves and never have to pay for food or rent. It’s there in the nation’s most popular TV show, in which contestants are beaten up and humiliated for the audience’s enjoyment.

(Side note: For those of you who’ve seen Idiocracy, it’s basically “Ow! My Balls” taken several steps further. To repeat, this movie — set in modern-day Oakland — goes even further than the apocalyptic dystopia of goddamn Idiocracy in its depiction of a populace addicted to brain-dead and vindictive entertainment. Think about that. Seriously.)

It’s there in the character who goes viral when they’re recorded taking a thrown soda can to the face, prompting everyone and their mother to mock the victim and monetize the incident in any way possible. It’s also there in the race aspect, the socioeconomic aspect, and a whole bunch of other shit I can’t talk about because of spoilers.

In case it isn’t obvious by now, the unifying thread is in the devaluing of people. This movie is all about how we as a culture refuse to recognize the inherent dignity of those who are poor, those who are colored, or simply those who are anyone other than us. It’s about how we reduce other people into tools for entertainment, for slave labor, or for any other base purpose when we’re not actively ignoring them. Because when we stop recognizing other people as fellow human beings, we lose all moral and ethical reason to consider their welfare or treat them with respect. We’re free to use and abuse subhumans in a way that we can’t with those who are recognizably human.

It’s deeply impressive how the movie explores this concept from so many different angles and in so many different ways, both metaphorical and literal. And again, it’s astounding how the movie paces this examination, starting with the superficial and going gradually deeper until the concept is taken to super-literal and nauseating extremes in the third act.

So are there any nitpicks? Well… I’m sure there are. A couple of setups aren’t paid off all that well, most especially a limp attempt at a love triangle involving Cassius and his fiancee (that would be Tessa Thompson’s character, with Steven Yeun playing the third wheel). I’m sure I could come up with something more concrete after two or three more viewings, but there’s so much going on here, it all flies by so quickly, and it’s all presented in such an ingeniously compelling way that even the dud moments are here and gone without too much damage.

But easily the biggest sticking point is that third-act twist I’ve spent this whole review alluding to. This is going to be the moment in which you either buy into the film completely or check out entirely. And to be clear, I could understand the latter reaction, given how insanely disgusting it is, so outlandish that there was really no 100 percent effective way of preparing the audience for it. But personally, I felt that the reveal itself was masterfully executed, and preceded by 70 minutes of definitive proof that this movie operated on its own upside-down dream logic. By that point, the movie had beaten me into submission with the sheer quality and quantity of batshit on display, and I had simply given up.

Sorry to Bother You is an aggressively sharp work of pitch-black satire. This is a movie so bold, so insidious, so beautifully paced and presented that you won’t even know what hit you until it’s too late. This is exactly the kind of creative, unique, intelligent, timely, stylish, and unforgettable cinema that we so badly need more of. This isn’t just funny or terrifying, but succeeds at perfectly riding the line between the two through every second of runtime while delivering so much more besides.

This is absolutely not a film to be missed. Check it out at your first opportunity, and be sure to bring a helmet so it doesn’t make a mess when your mind gets blown.

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