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Movie Review: The Satirical 'Sorry to Bother You' Takes Flight When It Goes Off the Rails

Margot Harrison Aug 1, 2018 10:00 AM

The word "freewheeling" could have been invented to describe Sorry to Bother You, the first film written and directed by the Coup front man Boots Riley. If the head-trip films of the 1960s had a fling with Mike Judge's Idiocracy and spawned a progeny as anarchically scattershot as it is brilliantly sincere, the result might look like this.

Riley's alternate-universe satire starts as a fairly straightforward comic parable of life in working-class America. Lakeith Stanfield plays young Cassius ("Cash") Green, who lives in his uncle's garage. Hoping to afford a better place to entertain his performance-artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), he takes a telemarketing job that pays only on commission.

But commissions are elusive, until an old-timer (Danny Glover), gives Cash a tip: Use his "white voice." Not anyone's real voice, he explains, but the voice white people wish they had, full of easy confidence and joie de vivre.

So Cash picks up the phone and starts speaking in the chipper voice of David Cross. His sales go through the roof. Soon he's being asked to join an elite group of "power callers" with bigger clients, including a company called Worry Free that peddles (essentially) the debt-slave labor of impoverished Americans. But to fulfill the promise of his name, Cash must abandon the picket line where his coworkers, including Detroit, are taking a stand for a living wage.

If this all sounds absurd, it is, and joyfully so. From the beginning, Riley's comic style is determinedly surreal: When Cash calls a potential customer, we see his desk transported right into their living room to highlight the intrusion. His "white voice" is so obviously overdubbed that a character remarks on it.

Such Brechtian techniques don't always mesh well with the more conventional aspects of the movie. Sorry veers back and forth between traditional comedy setups, pointed satire and non sequiturs, and some elements, like the relationship between Cash and Detroit, get shortchanged. (It's never clear whether she's a character with her own arc or just Cash's potential reward for making the right choices.)

But no matter how messy or bizarre it gets — it would be a spoiler to say just how bizarre — Sorry remains riveting. Most movies crash and burn when they go off the rails; for this one, jumping the track is a way to take flight. Anchored by Stanfield's sympathetic performance as a beleaguered, manipulated Everydude, the movie is Norma Rae on a long, strange trip through our world of self-righteous tech bros, casual racism and viral cruelty.

And maybe it only works because Riley knows exactly what he wants to say. He wrote the unapologetically leftist and pro-labor screenplay during the Obama administration, but it hits even harder today. One line rings especially prescient as a description of our hectic news cycle: When the exposure of a corporate outrage draws a shrug from the public, a character suggests that, confronted with a problem against which they feel powerless, people stop reacting and "get used to it."

Or they sign up for Worry Free, where they're guaranteed the necessities of life at the cost of their autonomy. (Corporate debt slavery was also a major plot point in the recent Ready Player One; maybe the notion doesn't seem so outlandish these days.) Playful rather than preachy, with more than its share of gasp-inducing viral moments, Sorry to Bother You makes the case for both political organizing and artistic disruption while giving the audience a wild ride. It has nothing to be sorry about.