In one of the many over-the-top scenes in Boots Riley’s reality-bending, farcical odyssey and debut feature, Sorry to Bother You, the protagonist, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), makes a startling discovery. Though ultimately humorous, this revelation is rather scary and unsettling at the moment. In many ways, that’s the emotional impact that Riley, an Oakland-based musician-turned-director, appears to be hoping for. Sorry to Bother You is a rich, aggressive, and often excessive sociopolitical commentary about, among other things, America, class, money, power, and ambition, and the film is nothing if not thought-provoking.
That “Cassius Green” sounds an awful lot like “cash is green” can’t be coincidental. The film is not concerned with subtlety and nuance as much as it seeks to compel the audience with farce. The story starts unassumingly enough, though, with Cassius interviewing for a job at a telemarketing company whose only real hiring prerequisite is the ability to use a telephone. At first, Cassius, who lives in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend, Detroit (a luminous and energetic Tessa Thompson), struggles with the job. He hits his stride, though, when an older, more experienced telemarketer (a fun, if inconsequential, Danny Glover in what amounts to a borderline-cameo) advises him to use his “white voice,” a more high-pitched and nasally intonation that puts customers at ease. Once he masters his white voice, Cassius discovers he has a knack for the gig and quickly rises through the ranks and into a more exclusive tier of telemarketing.
Cassius’s ambition to transcend his lot in life grows more complicated when he learns a bit more about the company he works for. The telemarketing division is housed within a larger corporation called WorryFree, a controversial operation that essentially operates in the trade of indentured servants. Led by its grandiose, cutthroat, and charismatic (if sociopathic) CEO, Steve Lift (a one-dimensional but memorable Armie Hammer), WorryFree is both a boon and saving grace to Cassius. On the one hand, Steve Lift and his juggernaut of an organization offer Cassius the wealth and status he has always dreamed of. On the other, they pit him against Detroit and his more humble friends from the telemarketing company, who, over the course of the film, dive deeper and deeper into anti-WorryFree unionizing and outright activism.
Stanfield, who, in his brief appearance in Get Out displayed amazing potential, offers a notable amount of range for what is unequivocally a satire. The same can be said for the supporting cast, especially Thompson. A rambunctious score by the Tune-Yards and Riley’s own band, The Coup, accentuates the film’s colorful visuals and set pieces.
All of these elements take place in a warped, alternate version of Oakland, one that exaggerates all-too-familiar elements of our contemporary American society: Formerly pure-hearted activists sell out to major companies, there’s a reality TV show where contestants voluntarily subject themselves to painful experiences before a live audience, and a video of an activist hitting Cassius in the head with a soda can goes viral. The film’s desire to comment on our present, and our potential future, is persistent in both good and bad ways: The messages are clear, direct, and forceful, but they are also frequently repetitive and lacking in overall narrative purpose.
That’s a struggle that a lot of satires face. At what point does the need to be provocative compromise the story’s cinematic integrity? If you’re more concerned with a richly satisfying arc and sense of resolution, Sorry to Bother You might not be for you; its half-hearted attempts at tidying up the story’s sprawling goals leave something to be desired. From a purely cinematic standpoint, the film has plenty of shortcomings.
Yet, in spite of that, it lingers, and Riley may be less concerned with whether you like the film, and more interested in whether or not it bothers you. If you’re willing to let go of that need for emotional satisfaction and airtight writing and focus on the purely visceral, you just might have a unique experience. The film will hit you much like the soda can hits Cassius.
Sometimes that kind of feeling, that metaphorical head-slap, can be a good thing, and sometimes it’s unnecessarily unsettling. Whether or not you have mixed feelings about why you’ve been shaken might ultimately be irrelevant, though. No matter how you feel about getting hit in the head with that soda can, there’s no denying it’ll wake you up.