It says a lot about the regressive state of America in 2018 that perhaps the only effective way to inject a pro-union theme into a movie is to cloak it in an outrageous, surrealist, science-fiction-tinged dark comedy. Not that Sorry to Bother You restricts itself to a single “message”—writer/director Boots Riley, of hip-hop group the Coup, has made a dense, dizzy pageant of social commentary and sheer what-the-fuckery. It’s an angry screed against racism, capitalism, violence as entertainment, and economic inequality, but it’s also hilarious and wholly unique. There are elements of Voltaire, Monty Python, Michel Gondry, and (as Kathy Fennessy’s review for The Stranger astutely points out) Lindsay Anderson’s brilliant, overlooked O Lucky Man!, but Riley is taking only little strands of those European influences in order to construct a wholly African American vision.
Riley’s been working on Sorry to Bother You for years—it was the name of a 2012 Coup album, and the screenplay was published in McSweeney’s in 2014. The plot is pretty simple, until it isn’t: Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) works at a telemarketing company, making awful cold calls and struggling for commission, until he starts using his “white voice” on the phone. His newfound success creates conflict with his performance artist girlfriend, Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson, who manages to find gravity in a character that I’m not sure was present in the screenplay itself. (Thompson also does a performance-art piece late in the movie that is the textbook definition of quote-unquote “brave,” although I found it went on long enough to turn cruel and tough to watch.) Meanwhile, doors keep opening for Cassius as he deals with the upper echelon of his telemarketing company’s clientele, including a slave-trading business headed by Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the embodiment of white privilege. It all takes place in an Oakland that’s both viscerally real—homeless camps line the sidewalks—and hallucinatorily fantastical.
In terms of audacity and multitude of ideas, Sorry to Bother You is a remarkable accomplishment. In terms of narrative satisfaction, it’s probably a little too anarchic to please all comers. I found the density and intensity of the movie to be exhilarating and then exhausting; the movie feels longer than its hour and 45 minutes. But I was also invigorated by its energy and the way it reframed difficult and familiar ideas into something so fresh. Stanfield is incredible, at first trudging like a marionette with slack strings during Cassius’ low points, then becoming more assertive as he gains confidence. And there are isolated sequences that are among the most inventive and intoxicating things I’ve seen in a film in a long time.
It’s strange, to be sure: Sorry to Bother You is most likely the strangest movie of the year except for Ready Player One—because what the fuck was that, anyway—but if you’re the type of moviegoer who recognizes the value of unconventionality, especially in an art form with as high a barrier to entry as filmmaking, Sorry to Bother You is likely to be one of 2018’s indispensable artifacts.