Sorry to Bother You is a brilliantly bizarre sci-fi satire
We're in the midst of a political summer for movies. From the messy scaremongering of Sicario: Day of the Soldado to the restructuring of class and racial anxiety into boogeymen in The First Purge, genre filmmaking in particular has taken advantage of its ability to push boundaries in order to address real-world issues. The trend continues, but to much better effect, in long-time rap legend Boots Riley's moviemaking debut Sorry to Bother You, a wild and often hilarious take-down of Silicon Valley power, rampant consumerism, and racial strife in modern America.
Set in a surreal and dystopian version of Oakland, the film follows newly minted telemarketer Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield, Get Out) as he works his way up the corporate ladder with the help of his "white voice" (voiced by David Cross, Arrested Development), an ability that allows him to capture the hearts of the lonely suckers he's tasked with scamming. While Cassius enjoys his initial success, he soon finds himself trapped in the dark and deranged world of CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name), an egomaniac who heads the company WorryFree, a client of Cassius' telemarketing company that offers lifetime housing and meals in exchange for what is essentially slave labor.
Stanfield's casting is no mistake, as this film plays at times like last year's horror meets racism parable Get Out except this time it's on a drug binge. It's clear that subtlety is not a skill in Riley's repertoire, but the wild humor of the film works because he has Stanfield play the straight man and serve as a surrogate for the audience, which allows the antics to continually gather laughs rather than become exhausting. Stanfield is an excellent leading man, bringing his knack for comedic timing seen in his popular role on Atlanta and combining it with the deranged exasperation he brought to life in his brief but excellent role in the aforementioned Get Out.
The real stars of the show here however are Hammer and the always marvelous Tessa Thompson (Creed), who plays Green's rebellious artist girlfriend Detroit. A large amount of the film's personality comes from Thompson's performance, whose biting attitude and wonderfully kitschy homemade earrings serve as both a narrative and visual mission statement for what mood the film is trying to achieve. Her character serves as the moral compass as the film as Cassius descends further and further into Lift's world, which is brought to mischievous life by Hammer's coked out performance. Any semblance of the sensitivity that brought him acclaim in Call Me By Your Name is flipped entirely on its head here, as Hammer delivers his lines with the same sort of manic, egotistical aplomb that sends shivers down your spine when corporate creeps are doing their best impression of a human being. His commitment to his character's awful nature allows the utterly ridiculous nature of the film's third act to actually seem sensible from a insane businessman's perspective, which again proves the performances in this film are ultimately what makes it work as an effective satire.
Despite its excellent performances and ingenious set-up, the film struggles mightily in its climax to corral its ideas into a coherent narrative. A wildly unexpected twist that will surely spark much discussion in film circles for months to come doesn't exactly jump the shark, but as the humor starts to run out of steam and the on-the-nose nature of the film turns from inspired to tired, it's hard not to feel that the script could have used some refinement. However, it's hard not admire the energy of Riley's first film, which takes the opportunity to turn his wide swath of ideas into what is ultimately a very entertaining, if messy, satire of modern American life. It does everything you'd expect from the first film of an promising filmmaker, serving up a delectable appetizer that makes you excited for what's next.