Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson shine in one of the best movies of the year.
There’s a moment in Sorry to Bother You where everything snaps into place, where I thought for the briefest moment that I could define exactly what writer-director Boots Riley was trying to say with his surreal parable. Then the movie chewed up my split-second interpretation and spat it back out again, and I was left back where I started, bewildered and entranced.
Sorry to Bother You defies description or analysis, but that only makes it more tempting to try your hand at describing or analyzing it. On the surface, it’s the story of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a telemarketer who rises through the ranks of his company after discovering how to use his “white voice” (provided by David Cross). But it’s not really a story about telemarketing. It’s a story about identity, morality, activism, and Armie Hammer snorting an incredibly long line of cocaine. Sorry to Bother You is aggressively inventive, and one of the things it keeps on inventing is a new movie that you didn’t realize you were watching.
The film is set in Oakland, California, but everything about its setting is just slightly off. It’s an Oakland of the slight future, where slave labor is an accepted part of the cultural landscape and the most popular program on television is a reality TV show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me. It’s surreal and perverse, but it’s also lived-in and well-realized, and – if we’re being honest with ourselves – not entirely unrealistic.
It’s hard to avoid comparing Sorry to Bother You to Get Out – both are films from first-time filmmakers who use genre trappings to thinly disguise deeper social meanings. But as easy as it would be, such a comparison is ultimately minimizing. Riley and Peele are different artists with very different priorities, and the two films are about as different as could be. Where Get Out begins with the aesthetic of a low-budget horror film and then builds to surreal heights, Sorry to Bother You leaps into the deep end, starting with Michel Gondry-esque visual shortcuts and concluding with… well, it would be best not to say.
Riley himself is asking audiences to keep the film’s secrets, and he’s right to ask. The initial pitch of Sorry to Bother You has very little to do with the places the story ultimately goes, and there are a few genuine shocks to be had here – not cheap Infinity War-style surprises, but real plot twists that change the shape of the film’s setting and the tone of its thematics. It’s best experienced with only the barest level of plot description; the spirit of the film is such that any bare-bones description I might lay out is ultimately burned down by the end of the first act.
That anarchic spirit is best embodied in the character of Tessa Thompson‘s Detroit, Cassius’ performance artist girlfriend. Thompson is the film’s standout; she gives a vibrant, radical performance that effectively underlines her status as one of our finest young actors. Her portion of the film is also the easiest to parse from a rhetorical standpoint; if the rest of the film might be compared to Get Out, Detroit and Cassius’ relationship looks a lot like the best parts of last year’s Roman J. Israel, Esq., a story about struggling to balance the difficulty of doing what you believe in with the ease of cashing out for simple material success. Thompson gives a brilliant physical performance, swaggering through rooms and blurring the film’s reality with a light toss of her huge, wordy earrings (Credit in this department should go to Deidra Govan, whose costume design is a revelation).
With all of this stuff whirring around Sorry to Bother You‘s head, you’d be forgiven for thinking it sounds like a bit of a preachy, overstuffed bore. It’s not. Riley has also made one of the funniest, most delightful movies of the year. It feels like this a movie that’s been sitting in his mind for his entire musical career, something he only just now got together the money and guts to put together. Scratch that: It feels like six movies that have been sitting in his mind for years, an opportunity to throw everything he’s ever wanted to see in a movie onto the screen just to see what sticks. Almost all of it sticks, and it coheres to an astonishing degree. The workplace comedy of Cassius’ career gels with the fiery rage of Detroit’s performance art, and ultimately ends up entangled with it. The social satire of the world outside Cassius’ carefully contained career bleeds into it, with little moments that seemed like quiet world-building details quickly becoming integral to the main story. It’s not particularly focused – this is one of the most chaotic and overwhelming movies you’ll see this year – but every set-up has a carefully considered pay-off. No detail is thrown away, and no visual gag is forgotten.
Like all first features, Sorry to Bother You isn’t perfect. It has a bit of a multiple-ending problem, with the perfect final frames disrupted by a mid-credits scene that undercuts what came before. And one subplot featuring a labor activist played by Steven Yeun peters to a close without much resolution. There are places Sorry to Bother You goes that some viewers simply won’t want to follow. It quickly becomes weird and wild and incredibly ballsy, but it’s one of the most assured, self-possessed debut features in a long time. Give it a shot, if only because you’ll want to be a part of the conversation.