How do you categorise a film that mixes low-brow comedy, social commentary, anarchism and sci-fi? That is the strange universe of Sorry to Bother You from writer-director/Oakland rapper Boots Riley; who also performs and writes the film’s score with his hip-hop group The Coup.
In an alternate present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield, Get Out, Short Term 12) is struggling through his 20s, living in the garage of his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews). Whilst he doesn’t live on much, and can’t get a job, he is loved by his artistic and political girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson, Portlandia, Dear White People), who also doesn’t have a job, and makes provocative sculptures and exhibits.
Detroit is part of a radical group called “The Left Eye”, whose primary adversary is a controlling corporation called Worry-Free, a company who offer an existence free of rent and bills – in exchange for a lifetime work contract.
Worry-Free, worth billions and gaining ever more popularity, is headed by maniacal millennial CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer playing any Silicon Valley head).
Feeling worthless and wanting to avoid working for the nefarious Worry-Free, Cash gets a job at the only place he can – as a telemarketer at firm, Regalview. Initially struggling with his job’s ethics, he soon rises to the top of the chain – impressing bosses by selling out consumers, friends and co-workers alike.
Cash is assisted by a youthful Danny Glover, taught to use his “White Voice” – and sound reassured, calm, privileged. (Actually, the voice of Arrested Development’s David Cross).
Trying the trick, Cash is suddenly rolling in money, out of his uncle’s house and promoted ‘upstairs’ as a “power caller” – advanced to an exclusive, gold suite where a select few make thousands a day.
But finding its groove as a pointed, if not exactly subtle satire of aspirational and corporate America (as Cash also finds his groove), Sorry to Bother You suddenly and abruptly abandons this tack.
Having more money than ever, Cash’s co-workers, including his friends and girlfriend – protesting their poor conditions – are all fired. Finding success for the first time, Cash stays and deserts all of them – including Detroit.
Enjoying the trappings of success, Cash is taken to a party where he meets eccentric Worry-Free CEO Lift, who offers him the opportunity of his life. And then he finds that the billionaire is turning employees into half-horse half-humans…
Yes. It goes there. And it only gets zanier from there.
While all of this is unfolding, and the aptly named Cash tastes success, the film tackles racism, slavery, class, consumerism, political interference, the American Dream, among myriad topics. Riley himself is an activist whose lyrics have been called revolutionary.
It is hard to describe the nature of the musician’s work, which mixes many elements, themes and concerns.
Is Sorry to Bother You an absurdist fable? An exercise in animal jokes? A parable for slavery? A trivial takedown of consumerist culture as silly as what it satirises? At times it is many of these, other times it seems it has less to say. Meshing and jam-packing multiple genres, the $3.2M budgeted film which premiered at Sundance is hard to classify.
What begins as a comedy degenerates into a bizarre, sci-fi dystopia – a doomsday scenario with apocalyptic humour. At times, it almost hits a John Carpenter tone.
Riots are everywhere, Oakland becomes a scene of mass-protests, violence; a warzone – and a vehicle for everything from the current US political state, police brutality, to the greed of the 1%.
Blood is shed. Horse-people beat police. America goes up in flames.
The humour in Riley’s work isn’t always subtle, or fresh. Some gags are overused and run long. Cash in real-time enters a 50-number password to get into his new suite, multiple times. Inevitable horse jokes are made.
While aiming for sheer lunacy and achieving it, the film may not offer much of substance, but will provide laughs along the way.
Mixing many concerns into a potent mix but offering more laughs than thought starters, Sorry to Bother You is a hodgepodge capitalist critique filled with hijinks, which asks: who are ultimately the slaves, and who are the masters?