Sorry to Bother You

Posted on July 5, 2018 at 5:28 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use
Profanity: Very strong and crude language throughout
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 6, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 22, 2018
Copyright 2018 Annapurna Pictures

The title of “Sorry to Bother You” comes from the fake apology made by telemarketers. That’s the job the movie’s central character applies for in the first scene and finds himself unexpectedly good at, so good he gets a huge promotion as a “power seller.” This first film from musician Boots Riley shows Cash Green (short for Cassius, played by the limitlessly talented Lakieth Stanfield) literally crashing into the lives of the people he calls, showing us right away we are in the hands of a confident, provocative new filmmaker with a singular voice, and preparing us — almost — for a pointed journey into high social satire fueled by a sharp understanding of the politics of our time and the human nature of all times.

Cash and his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson of “Annihilation” and “Thor: Ragnarok”) live in a garage. Cash’s uncle (Terry Crews) owns the house, for the time being at least. Money is tight and he may lose it. Cash applies for a job as a telemarketer, lying about his qualifications. The boss doesn’t mind; in fact, willingness to lie is a better qualification for sitting in a cubicle trying to get people to buy a lot of dumb stuff they don’t need. Cash puts on the headset, and starts crashing into people’s lives.

The guy in the next cubicle (Danny Glover) gives him some important advice: “Use your white voice. I’m not talking about Will Smith white.” He means the kind of white that conveys unquestioned and unquestioning privilege, the ones W.H. Auden described as “the homes I warm to,/though seldom wealthy,/ always convey a feeling of bills being promptly settled/with checks that don’t bounce.”

Cash finds his white voice (nasally supplied by David Cross), and is soon a “power caller,” invited upstairs and even to a debauched party at the home of the CEO, Mr. Lift (Armie Hammer). In the meantime, one of the other telemarketers (Steven Yeun as Squeeze) is organizing the employees into a union to get better working conditions. Cash is conflicted. He sympathizes with the workers, even as he moves up the ladder. But he likes being successful. He likes having better things. He likes the money.

And so he doesn’t look too hard at what is going on around him, particularly the omnipresent ads for something called WorryFree, a company that promised to solve all your problems by giving you a job, a place to live, and food, even your clothes. They hope you don’t notice that it is basically a prison, and that you will owe your soul to the company store.

Lift is still not entirely worry free, though. Those human beings are just so pesky, wanting justice and freedom, and all that. He has a solution and he wants Cash to be a part of it.

Riley’s visual flair and brash and bracing screenplay and superb performances by everyone, especially by Stanfield, Thompson, and Hammer, keep us so engaged that we are deep into the story before we realize how much it dares.

Ever since his extraordinary breakthrough in “Short Term 12,” Stanfield has brought a soulful gravity to a wide range of performances. His posture and eyes are deeply expressive, and he makes Cash the right Candide-like figure to take us through this story, always keeping an essential humanity in the midst of the heightened reality of the storytelling.

Thompson’s graceful Detroit is much more than the usual movie girlfriend. She is observant and thoughtful. She is really the stand-in for Riley because she makes everything around her art with a political message, from her earrings (all music lyrics) to the way she tosses the sign on the street corner for her day job.  We see her gallery show, including a performance art piece where she invites people to throw things at her. Her life, art, and politics are all one, yet she loves Cash because he is not a part of the art world, the part that she considers snobbish and commercial. She has views on honor and meaning, however, and there comes a point where she has to leave.

It gets so outrageous you may not realize until later how sneaky it is, delivering a powerful message about power, money, race, art, family, property, and having something that matters in your life. The film itself is its own answer — tell your story, make art, and don’t forget to “Épater la bourgeoisie.”

Parents should know that this film has very strong and crude language, explicit sexual references and situations with male and female nudity, alcohol, drugs, and peril and violence, including body horror.

Family discussion: Why would someone join WorryFree?  What companies are most like that?  Should Cash have stayed with the workers who were protesting?

If you like this, try: “School Daze” and “Downsizing”

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