Sorry to Bother You and all the images you see in this review are owned by Annapurna Pictures
Directed by Boots Riley
This is a great time of year because once the summer blockbuster season starts to wind down we start to get some really great stuff from the indie scene right before the Prestige Films and the Oscar Bait start to take over the multiplex. Sure, August is normally considered a dumping ground for mediocre movies (I’m wary about Slenderman to say the least) but that’s more to do with the BIG releases rather than the harder to find stuff in the fancier theaters which is pretty much exactly what we have here today as I had to make a bit of a drive to catch this on the big screen. Now I’ve been keeping my eye on this film since the trailers started to pop up due to its interesting style and oddly relatable premise, at least from what they were selling us on, and most importantly I could really use something other than super hero flicks and The Rock to fill out my GOOD MOVIES list for this year! Does this bizarre little story manage to be just as good as I hoped it would be, or was I just too eager to find something new that there was no way it would live up to my expectations? Wouldn’t be the first time this year (*cough* Thoroughbreds *cough*)! Anyway, let’s find out!!
Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a man just trying to survive day by day and constantly wondering if anything he does will ultimately matter in the grand scheme of things. After all, once he dies and his theoretical children die and then THEIR theoretical children die, will there be ANYONE left to remember him or the fact that he just barely managed to get a job working as a telemarketer? His girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) thinks he’s worrying too much about all that and she’s content to work on her art projects in between gigs as a sign flipper, but with the world slowly going to hell in a handbasket (a new company called WorryFree is basically reintroducing slavery by praying on the impoverished) it all just seems pointless unless he can REALLY start to make some money and find what it is that he’s good at. As it turns out though, he has a knack for this telemarketing thing once he finds his “white voice” (David Cross) and is on the fast track to being a POWER CALLER which is basically doing the same thing only for more money and selling stuff other than encyclopedias. However, his rise to the top has some roadblocks along the way as his fellow workers are staging a strike just as he’s about to make it as a POWER CALLER, and said promotion doesn’t come without its own problems and indignities that slowly start to tear at Cassius’s soul and creates a divide between him and Detroit. Throw in some colorful characters like Squeeze the leader of the telemarketer’s strike (Steven Yeun), Steve Lift the CEO of WorryFree (Armie Hammer) who’s about as big of a douche bag as you’d imagine, and the mysterious Mr. ******* (Omari Hardwick) who represents the future that Cassius has waiting for him if he sticks it out at his new job for just a little bit longer. Can Cassius find a way to use his talents for massive financial gain without losing his soul in the process? Just what is WorryFree up to, and how does it connect to this Telemarketing Company as well as Cassius himself? Is there like a hotline I can call that’ll explain this movie to me, because I feel like I STILL don’t have a clear grasp on what the heck was going on!
My benchmark for stylish modern dark comedies was set PRETTY high last year with Ingrid Goes West topping my Best of 2017 list, and yet this movie still managed to surprise me with just how damn good it is! This movie is absolutely fantastic in all the wild and absurd ways that similar films like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Brazil are (which I’m VERY thankful for considering what an ass Terry Gilliam has revealed himself to be), but speaking of this in comparison to other films doesn’t do justice to the overwhelming creativity in every scene of the movie as well as the jaw dropping moments of brilliance that are scattered throughout its run time. Now I don’t think this is a perfect movie as there are some moments here that fall a bit flat and the editing can feel a bit wonky at times, but even then there’s so much packed into this movie that it’ll certainly reward repeat viewings and there’s a chance that whatever small nit-picks I can find in here are actually part of something much bigger that just flew over my head until the second, third, or even fourth viewing. Even if you only see it the one time though, there is nothing out there quite like it as it speaks to our modern anxieties in a way that very few else have and manages to make it an absolute riot along the way.
Where to even really start with this? The film knocks it out of the park in pretty much every way that matters; from its fantastic cast and layered script to its spot on humor and inventive cinematography, it’s the kind of movie that launches careers and sets whole new paradigms for how films are made; at least if it garners enough buzz to get the attention of mainstream audiences which I’m not sure if it’ll quite manage to do (certainly not to the extent of something like Get Out which this shares quite a bit in common with), but even if this is a one off from first time director Boots Riley that he’ll either never top or even try to, I’m certain that this will be considered an all-time classic and will definitely be one of the key films for this period of time, much like Apocalypse Now was for the Vietnam War or Natural Born Killers was for the cynical commodification of real life horrors and tragedies for entertainment that was really building up steam in the nineties (*cough* OJ Simpson*cough* Tonya Harding *cough*). More than just a direct attack on this administration, it goes for Capitalism as a whole and the way that we’re forced to put our own survival and then our own comfort ahead of helping others who are in much worse shape than we are. Granted, a FUNCTIONING government should be doing that for us with efficient and practical use of our tax dollars, but the potential for exploitation is always there under capitalism as it is today, and this movie is all about one man’s struggle to find peace with himself as he not just manages to survive but also thrive in a machine that will gladly chew him up and spit him out if given the opportunity. I can’t say I’ve ever been in Cassius’s position with me being a middle class white dude, but that anxiety about whether you’ve got a good thing going or are just settling for the first opportunity that presented itself, whether or not your success is negatively affecting anyone else, or if you’ll just be HAPPIER worrying less about student loan payments and finding something to do with your life that doesn’t cause a constant drip feed of unneeded stress. Even when things go completely off the rails into fantasy land and sci-fi absurdity, Cassius’s plight is still relatable and that’s what keeps the movie grounded enough so that it CAN get as silly and imaginative as it wants without feeling like overindulgence or getting too far away from the actual plot.
That absurdism by the way is just as well realized as its messages about Millennial Ennui and is so well executed that the movie would have worked if it was just a silly office comedy with a particularly odd sense of humor. It paces out the weirdness very well too as the thing starts out rather strange with Cassius bringing an Employee of the Month placard as well as a trophy to a job interview (I’ve gotta try that sometime) and it only getting stranger from there. His living situation is weird, the managers at his new job are oddly intense, and then we start getting into the calls themselves which leads to him developing his “white voice”, and then there’s the elevator made out of gold, a dude with an eyepatch and fantastic facial hair, it’s all just so carefully stacked on top of each other as the film goes along that you can hardly even tell where there was a significant jump away from reality. I’ll give a warning to anyone who wants to see this though, things get PRETTY dark as we head into the third act, though the BIG REVEAL goes from terrifying to actually kind of humorous the movie the movie gets into it. Just… be ready for anything I guess.
If I had to really dig deep and try to find something that didn’t work for me one hundred percent, I would have to boil it down to two things; the editing and the messaging. Now that’s not to say that either one of them are bad, mediocre, or even simply good. They’re the points where a movie that is firing on cylinders THIS MUCH hits a slight bump and pulls things down just a tiny bit; an almost imperceptible amount in a lesser movie, but still worth bringing up in the context of this great one. Now for me, I thought this movie had a problem with a few aimless scenes that just didn’t quite fit in the places they were put and slowed things down when we should be ramping things up. The revelation in the third act about what the end goal of all of this is works AMAZINGLY well and is a solid ten to fifteen minutes of nail biting white knuckling intensity… but then the movie just kinda stops the momentum to go back to a relationship problem and it feels a bit out of place. I mean to a certain extent I think I get the intent as the human race is VERY good at adapting to awful things that happen in the world and the movie in and of itself ADAPTING that revelation to something resembling a new normal is kind of profound in its own way. I won’t spoil the revelation here, but if you DO see this or already know what the BIG SHOCKING MOMENT is, how likely would it be for any of us to immediately jump to action, quit our jobs, and start fighting for the resistance against this inhumane practice? Some of you for sure would and that’s kind of what the movie’s ultimate message is about, but looking back on just how damned ugly the world has gotten in a mere year and half since the SCROTUS got into power and it just gets that much more depressing how most of us actually DO something about it rather than go to bed anxious and wake up miserable. All that is interesting, but I still feel like it may have been THE BEST choice for this movie as far as its pacing and there are moments like it throughout where something big happens but the film kind of awkwardly goes into another direction for a bit before going back to face the problem head on. As far as the other thing that’s slightly off about this movie, I feel like repeat viewings will greatly diminish this issue for me but the first time seeing it it’s just a bit overwhelming with how much is being thrown at you constantly and how much is crammed into every moment. Maybe my brain isn’t ready to fully absorb what the revolution entails, but by the end of the movie I was… unclear about what the FIX to all of this was. I mean it kind of works out at the end for our characters, but there are still a whole lot of problems that it’s unclear if they’re fixed or not! It’s not a movie that you should take too literally at any point (especially after the third act revelation) but I still felt a little lost at the end and maybe could have used a little more explanation. There are other parts that just didn’t really work for me like a scene at an art show which FEELS like it’s supposed to mean something but comes off more like Maureen’s performance art in RENT (was it SUPPOSE to come off as phony and pretentious?), but once again I’m sure repeat viewings will help to spell things out a bit more. Even if it doesn’t though, these issues are rather minor and hardly do much to dampen my enthusiasm for everything else that it gets right.
This is certainly one of the most interesting and bold movies to have come out this year and it certainly sets a rather high bar for everything else to follow. I absolutely recommend seeing this if you have the chance because there’s really nothing else like it and we need movies like this that attempt to shock us out of our complacency; much like what The Purge movies have tried to do with each successive iteration. Whether or not this will lead to a swath of great movies about the waking nightmare of this current time in history, it’ll certainly find its place in the cinematic cannon and is just a damn fine way to spend an afternoon if you need a momentary to escape from the world without disengaging from it entirely. Heck, start a protest once the credits roll! I’m sure you’ll get at least half the audience to go along with you!