You’d be hard pressed to find someone who has never answered the phone to an unsaved number and heard the fake-cheery “Hi, sorry to bother you–” on the other end before immediately hanging up. This is where Oakland rapper, activist, producer, and now screenwriter-director Boots Riley derives the title of his debut fantasy/sci-fi “Sorry to Bother You.” A former telemarketer himself, Riley is not sorry. He is in your face, creating a fantastical world that’s almost too similar to our own. For this satiric film, released on July 6 and already receiving stellar ratings, subtlety is not something you’ll find between its many layers.
Set in a saturated, twisting, and deeply conflicted setting that feels familiar yet alien, few films have executed what Riley’s film has. The film’s protagonist Cassius Green (FX’s Atlanta star Lakeith Stanfield) doesn’t feel like the typical hero. His posture is horrendous, he mumbles, and his confidence pales in comparison to his flamboyant, rainbow-haired artist girlfriend Detroit (the mega-talented Tessa Thompson) whose style is a movie in and of itself (at one point, she dons handmade MURDER MURDER MURDER, KILL KILL KILL earrings).
At the movie’s opening, the two are living in the garage of Cassius’ uncle (Terry Crews) where they are four months behind on rent. His lackadaisical interview at telemarketing company RegalView is complete with a fake employee-of-the-month plaque and phony trophy. Regardless, because everyone gets this job, he’s shown his desk and sets out to work with a list of names and numbers to call. There’s only one rule here: Stick to the Script. In our first introduction to just how wacky this movie can get, Cassius – desk and all – is literally dropped into the homes of the people he calls, having to make a sale while customers are in various states of grief, passion, and turmoil.
Alongside Cassius’ storyline looms Worry Free, a prison-like corporation “revolutionizing” labor by offering food and shelter in exchange for a lifetime of labor that would usually be outsourced to sweatshops abroad. It’s CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), is a cocaine addict who feels all too similar to the young “tech bros” of San Francisco monopolizing the future of, well, everything. However, Cassius is unperturbed by the onslaught of this new slavery, and quickly finds his place within RegalView, where his “real deal White voice” suggested by a coworker (Danny Glover) skyrockets him to the mystical Power Caller position. From there, he leaves the lackluster office he’s used to and into the suave, modern top-floor offices to sell something more high stakes: human labor and warfare.
The story twists and turns, and whenever you think you know what will happen next, you’ll probably end up wrong. Cassius is wealthy, he’s paid his overdue rent, and moves into high-rise apartments with Detroit. While his coworkers unionize and protest low wages, Cassius remains relatively unfazed by his complicity in Worry Free’s corporate takeover because he’s finally upgraded to a nice car, a nice apartment, and maintains his loving girlfriend. Except, you’d be wrong to think that. Stanfield has shown us time and time again, from Atlanta to the 2013 indie drama “Short Term 12,” that he is an actor capable of occupying worlds authentically and interestingly. His performance of Cassius as a smart, adaptable, and sensitive character, who is ultimately hard to hate despite the passivity he represents.
“Sorry to Bother You” is bizarre if anything. You won’t find spoilers here, but it’s eccentric at every point, from the introduction of the “White voice” to the cocaine-addicted, linen skirt-wearing CEO of Worry Free (Call Me By Your Name’s Armie Hammer). Regardless, it is a joy to watch, infused with social justice, questions of capitalism and labor, the purpose of art, and the ambiguity of morals. It’s almost dystopic, until you realize everything from the dialogue to Detroit’s modernesque “The Future is Female Ejaculation” shirt feels familiar to – if not a bit removed from – our current reality. That’s not to say that this movie lacks the fantasy/sci-fi elements of the genres it’s categorized as, but Riley plays with social commentary to build a world like ours, except with blaringly obvious signs that guide us toward some kinds of alarming near-future.
“Sorry to Bother You” was released to a limited audience on July 6 and will expand to a wider audience in late July.