First-time writer and director Boots Riley has crafted a phenomenal story about race and reality in America, and what it means to stand up for what’s right.
One of the first phrases spoken in Sorry to Bother You is a slogan that the workers at a telemarketing firm that employs the main characters are forced to hear again and again: Stick to the Script. Throughout the film this phrase is repeated again and again, advising the employees and the viewing audience to keep to what is expected of them, nothing more. Naturally, it doesn’t take much time before the expectations around the characters and the film itself are thrown out the window, and with it, a rousing success is born. Refusing to do what was expected of him turned musician Boots Riley into a writer and director, and decided not to conform to the standards being set for them is what gets each character in the film motivated into changing their lives. As a result, a masterpiece of comedy and pathos is built, picking up where films like Get Out and Whiplash left off in looking at how to deal with a world that needs to be shaped.
LaKeith Stanfield–a standout in Get Out, Atlanta, and more–stars as Cassius Greene, a young man who finds himself working a seemingly dead-end job as a telemarketer alongside his friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) and girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). The position seems to be too much for Cassius, but he soon discovers a superpower that allows him to sell to anyone—the White Voice. By speaking in a voice that sounds like a rich and confident white man instead of Cassius’s typical voice, he begins to succeed in ways no one expects, let alone the other workers he befriends. And as Cassius begins his skyrocket to financial success and “upscale elegance,” he begins to discover problems in the world around him that go beyond what a salesman should be doing.
The plot conventions of a young upstart losing themselves in a business have been done before, in stories from The Devil Wears Prada to How to Succeed in Business and more. But it is the voice and style of Sorry to Bother You that makes it beyond unique, the kind of movie that had me laughing out loud and gasping in shock equally. The script is brutally funny, from traditional laugh-lines built around simple jokes to elaborate gags that only make sense an hour after they have been set up. With incredibly tight pacing and impeccable editing from Terel Gibson, the script zings throughout, and the use of montages in the film has rarely been more effective. Mentions of phrases associated with Men’s Rights Activists are positioned alongside references to former films of co-star Danny Glover and beyond to a simple sight gag of the now straight-laced telemarketing manager having a tattoo on his neck of the anarchy symbol. Jokes that make you think are as frequent as those that are simple dumb fun, and each actor manages to deliver them perfectly.
Thompson, in particular, steals her every scene, a brilliant actress continuing an unbelievably successful year. Just as quickly as the movie shifts genre from comedy to drama to action and beyond, Thompson is able to keep up with everything Detroit demands. Stanfield is similarly breathtaking, playing a role dissimilar to everything he has been known for to date while still keeping himself as one of the best screen presences of his generation. Though only six feet tall he constantly positions himself and poses to look like a man too big for the world he is in, a visual flair that’s akin to the tone of the movie as a whole. Montages, flashing lights, props and more build an atmosphere that never fails to amaze.
Though Sorry to Bother You certainly isn’t perfect (the third act falls apart more than once, but it manages to overcome a slightly weak end), the flaws make it all the better. Some rushed characterization only builds the emphasis on our stars, and some attempts at keeping too politically up-to-date will age the film for the future but work well for now. Despite this all, the successes of Sorry to Bother You are more than enough. If this movie doesn’t receive awards nominations this year for the script and costuming, I will be severely disappointed for so many reasons. The costuming in particular is among the best I have ever seen, with earrings and jewelry I would want to wear and a color palate in attire and in cinematography that allows everything to pop.
Few films have as strong a bite to their satire as Sorry to Bother You, and it shows on the screen just how vicious the comedy can be. The film takes shots at everyone and everything that could be said about corporations, government corruption, performance art, and far more. But beneath it is an amazing and humorous and dark film that will stick with you long after the film ends.
Sorry to Bother You will hit theaters on July 6th.