Taking on a kaleidoscope of issues in an uncompromising style, Boots Riley’s SORRY TO BOTHER YOU lacerates its many targets with sharp humour and crisply absurd metaphor.
Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), an Oakland resident looking for more meaning in life, but also some money to pay his uncle rent, takes on a job at telemarketing firm Regalview. After being guided by a senior caller (Danny Glover) to use his ‘white voice’ (an overdubbed David Cross) to ensure more success, Cassius soon starts to climb the proverbial greasy pole to ‘Power Caller’. This puts him into conflict with his radical girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler). As he catches the attention of corporate CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the situation begins to spiral out of Cassius’s – or perhaps anyone’s – control.
The style and concerns of SORRY TO BOTHER YOU are a dense set of visual and narrative metaphors to unpack. The first obvious flourishes are the physical placement of Cassius – complete with desk and monitor – into the living rooms, bathrooms, or kitchens of those he is calling. It brings to mind the literal visual metaphors used by the likes of Michel Gondry in ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, whereby the removal of memories was reflected by switching off lights or people being forcibly dragged from the frame. These embellishments are not the last thing that will bring to mind Charlie Kaufman scripts or Gondry, either, with the latter even explicitly referenced.
“The style and concerns of SORRY TO BOTHER YOU are a dense set of visual and narrative metaphors to unpack.”
Racial perceptions are foregrounded in the form of the ‘white voice’ conceit. This ends up one minor string to the film’s bow, but the amount of satirical – and hilarious – content contained within is a perfect illustration of the dense issues underscoring the jokes. The choice to dub in white actors rather than simply having Stanfield and company impersonate is an interesting and effective choice. The disconnect between hearing Stanfield himself, and then having the voice of Tobias Fünke come out of his mouth really forces you to confront preconceptions about each, as well as Glover’s explanation of what the ‘white voice’ is and represents. Although perhaps backgrounded as the film develops, a party scene later resurfaces this idea in a mirrored form: what an entirely white audience expects of Cassius as a black man.
“The disconnect between hearing Stanfield himself, and then having the voice of Tobias Bluth come out of his mouth really forces you to confront preconceptions about each…”
Beyond that, there a number of strands that evoke the heightened reality of, for instance, Black Mirror. Reality TV is skewered, in the form of fictional show I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me – where the emotional beating people often take for their proverbial fifteen minutes is represented here as a brutal and disgusting physical ordeal. Cassius’s rise to viral star and the fallout from that bring in strands around social media, the impact that has on the public discourse, and the role corporations play in co-opting these channels of expression for their own means.
The introduction of Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift represents the point where the film’s political and economic satire deepens, and also when Boots Riley’s script starts to lean harder on the absurdist scenarios and humour. Lift’s Worry Free corporation is effectively taking advantage of economically hard-up people to sell slave labour to other corporations, a twisting comment upon the direction of modern capitalism. His talk of “saving the economy”, “saving lives”, and “transforming life itself” evokes the language of Silicon Valley CEOs mocked effectively elsewhere (HBO’s Silicon Valley, for instance). SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, however, is using intentionally absurd imagery to go for the jugular: rather than poking fun at the inherent pomposity, it engages in surreal reductio ad absurdum to lacerating effect.
“SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is using intentionally absurd imagery to go for the jugular[,] rather than poking fun at the inherent pomposity…”
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU begins as a racial satire, then manages to spin that out into a wider societal one. The targets are topical, but may even be prescient in a way that sees the film become a cult classic. The impact of Worry Free on the alt-world of the film has a similar effect for commenting upon the role of private corporations in public life. The proposal Lift puts to Cassius even manages to weave in a nod to the role of money and power subverting democratic movements.
There is a modern dynamism to Riley’s film that would make it an excellent companion piece to Terry Gilliam‘s own slice of dystopian satire: BRAZIL. Yet, by placing the setting in a Gondry-like reality we recognise, the film’s absurdist extrapolations are more focused on the effects of capitalism on society. The global concerns aren’t a wild departure from BRAZIL’s bureaucratic nightmare or the totalitarian imposition of morality in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but certainly one that has more contemporaneous cultural reference points. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU succeeds in satirising more modern concerns in a manner that echoes such films, something Gilliam tried himself with very mixed success in THE ZERO THEOREM.
Sharp, vivid, often uncomfortable, but frequently hilarious, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is a bold and distinctive vision that is rightly nowhere near as apologetic as the title.