If you were to only see the over-the-top trailers, Sorry to Bother You might seem like a zany workplace comedy, but there is so much more to the film — a dystopian satire set in alternate modern-day Oakland — than meets the eye. Atlanta standout Lakeith Stanfield stars as a down-on-his-luck young black man, Cassius Green, who is behind on rent for the room he shares with his artist girlfriend (in his uncle’s garage). Cassius’ girlfriend, Detroit (Thor: Ragnarok and Creed‘s Tessa Thompson) stands out by rocking immediately iconic statement earrings — with literal statements like “MURDER MURDER MURDER” on one ear and “KILL KILL KILL” on the other — which represent her version of silent protest. (And that everyone watching the movie will instantly want to buy).
When Cassius lands a job as a telemarketer, he quite literally drops in on his prospective clients in rather unsuccessful — but visually awesome — fashion, until one co-worker, played by the legendary Danny Glover, teaches him how to use his “white voice” to get ahead. And wouldn’t know you know it, the “white voice” (which is David Cross’ voice dubbed over Stanfield’s) works and Cassius quickly begins rising the ranks, becoming a “power-caller” for the company. Enter Armie Hammer as the eccentric and devious CEO, Steve Lift, who uses money to lure Cassius further away from the person he intended to become when taking the job — not that he was totally sure who he aspired to be in the first place.
If Sorry to Bother You stopped there, it would be a pretty entertaining premise, but that’s not the story writer-director Boots Riley intends to tell. Anything else I tell you would be a spoiler. (Seriously, wild horses couldn’t make me tell you more).
This in-your-face story was conceived by political musician-turned-filmmaker Riley as his directorial debut. Riley says the story was inspired by his own past as a telemarketer before becoming the frontman for the band, The Coup, and took him nearly a decade to bring to the screen. The result is as daring and audacious as the man himself.
Riley’s all-star cast — rounded out by former The Walking Dead star Steven Yeun, Power‘s Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews, Jermaine Fowler and the voices of Patton Oswalt and Rosario Dawson — bring his rebellious pop art vision to life. Stanfield shines in his first true leading role. His portrayal of Cassius is so steady and relatable, as the character tries to figure out what success means to him and just how far he’s willing to go to get it. Thompson, who is known for her activism off-screen, is a natural fit for the strong-minded Detroit, a role that is thankfully much more than just a love interest. Hammer is almost too-perfectly cast, with a performance that brings back memories of his breakout turn as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. Really, who better to play the handsome, coke-snorting billionaire bro than someone often accused of being heir to the Arm & Hammer fortune?
Sorry to Bother You exists in world gone mad — which doesn’t feel too far from our own right now. But unlike the feeling of dread audiences feel with each new episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, this gives you a heavy dose of familiarity wrapped in an acid trip. It’s bright, bold and brash, and it almost certainly works because of that cartoonish nature. It’s uncomfortable at times, but affecting. So much of the film’s brilliance lies in disguising the movie’s political messages — conversations on consumerism, what it truly means to be an activist and code-switching (modifying one’s behavior/appearance/speech to adapt to different sociocultural norms) — behind its rowdy comedy.
Just when you think you know where the film is headed in its meditation on race, culture and success, Riley flips things on their head and the story takes off in truly unexpected directions. By the time Sorry to Bother You hits maximum weirdness, you’re practically clinging to your seat and trying to pick your jaw up off the floor. Bottom line: Sorry to Bother You, which opens in limited theaters July 6 and nationwide on July 13, is not only a film you have to see to believe; it’s a full mind and body experience. Hope you’re ready for the ride.