What it's about: Cassius Green is down on his luck, living in his uncle's garage, looking for whatever kind of work he can get. When he scores a telemarketer job, he becomes intensely motivated toward the allure of becoming a "power caller," an elite and secretive society made of the best of the best. With this drive, Cassius has to make moral sacrifices which hurt his relationship with his activist artist girlfriend and his co-workers who are starting a groundswell to unionize. Once Cassius is invited to become a power caller, he quickly dives into a world of vast success and questionable morals. His new position gets him entwined into a conspiracy involving a mega-corporation, new age slave labor, and something ungodly bizarre.
Sorry to Bother You is one of those films that are built up through word-of-mouth as being something completely insane and unique ... and actually delivers on that. I'd genuinely suggest knowing as little as possible coming into the film, because if I told you where Sorry to Bother You ends up, you shouldn't believe me.
The film actually does a pretty good job through its marketing to keep its extended plot a secret, greatly benefiting from the high concept of its first half being strange and strong enough. The "use your white voice" conceit is incredibly funny throughout the film, with an insanely talented voice cast including David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Rosario Dawson, and Forest Whitaker.
As Sorry to Bother You gets crazier, it doesn't spiral out of control because the tone actually shifts more seriously. The final third of the film could have easily become goofy, but the cast sells it perfectly -- Lakeith Stanfield's complete shock and awe and Armie Hammer, as the beloved head of the mega-corporation/cult, approaches the most bizarre aspects of the narrative pragmatically.
And it isn't just the big moments that are memorable -- there are so many weird small things that don't really do anything to further the story that are just as fun and interesting. Cash's mentor as a power caller, for example, having any mention of his name bleeped out is a totally unnecessary touch but is simply funny.
The film that I'm reminded of the most is Terry Gilliam's Brazil -- which is one of my favorite movies of all time. I'm not sure if that was a direct influence on directly Boots Riley, but the films share a bureaucratic setting, a weird streak, overwhelming style, a few particular plot turns, and some sneaky social messages.
I'd need to watch Sorry to Bother You again to fully take in these social messages and not be overwhelmed in the style and narrative. The film has some poignant moments on cultural appropriation, human rights, fighting power. One of the strangest and most palpable sequences of this is when Cash is told to rap in front of a group of white people -- the hook he eventually comes up with is a vague but literal statement that becomes a tidy metaphor for how society claims black art and thought.
The only mild criticism that I can mount against Sorry to Bother You is that, aside from a few scenes like this, the film might be a bit too scattered and broad to know if any of the specific social messages would really stick. In whole, though, the film is a force. Again, though, I am sure I would pick up on more within the narrative when I watch the film again.
When I first saw Lakeith Stanfield in a small but important role in Short Term 12, I knew he was someone to watch. I had no idea he'd become as polished and as diversified an actor only a few years later [of course, seeing him in another co-starring role in Atlanta showed he had the chops for this film].
The rest of the ensemble is just as strong as the leading man. Tessa Thompson continues to build her filmography with strong and fierce women. I've already mentioned Hammer, who has a tough role as a charismatic villain who doesn't think of himself as the villain. Terry Crews, Kate Berlant, Steven Yeun, Jermaine Fowler, Michael Sommers, and Robert Longstreet all provide color to the diverse and fun cast.
Debuting writer-director Boots Riley really has something. He puts an undeniable stamp on the film, there is no doubt that Sorry to Bother You was made with someone who has flair, a minority point-of-view, and something to say. I expect him only to get better as a visual storyteller, too. If he wants to continue to make films, Riley could become one of the preeminent black filmmakers in a growing group working today.