Sorry to Bother You is a sharp-witted movie with a lot on its mind — racial inequality, economic strife and corporate overreach, to list a few. The heaviness is offset by the way director Boots Riley packages the seriocomedy: an artful use of neon hues and ridiculous clothes heighten the farcical plot twists with surrealistic flourish. In all its madness — both in anger and absurdity — Sorry to Bother You develops into a journey that defies classification. It’s a hybrid cross between a biting workplace satire and social commentary on complicity and exploitation.
Set in a lightly dystopian Oakland, California that’s odd, yet still familiar, the film revolves around Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a frustrated millennial who still lives in the garage of his grouchy uncle (Terry Crews). He soon settles for a job just about no one willingly signs up for: telemarketing. Looming on the perimeters of Green’s story is a painfully convenient program called WorryFree in which people voluntarily sign away their rights and freedom in exchange for never having to worry about economic stability again. That’s because they’re put into some form of slavery for barracks and guaranteed labor. Subtle, this movie is not.
Through some code-switching coaching from his deskmate (Danny Glover), Green moves up the corporate ladder at the expense of his unionizing colleagues and anti-establishment artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He becomes a designated Power Caller, a wildly successful telemarketer who pushes WorryFree to the masses. He sells out for a pay out, and eventually meets the lurid, head honcho of his company, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who should ring familiar to anyone with knowledge of Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. Lift preps Green for an even greater project to reward his capitalist ambitions.
Almost everything Stanfield responds to is punctuated with a curious look and a raised eyebrow, as if to ask, “are you sure?” His disbelief at the nonsense around him may mirror the audience’s reactions. The performance makes Green immediately sympathetic. Even his decision to sell out his coworkers and push away Detroit isn’t so much a betrayal as an act of desperation. He chooses to stay with the exploitive company because they give him security and a way to help his uncle with rent.
If Stanfield is the film’s droll figure bemused at the situations he finds himself in, then the characters around him fill out the rest of the allegorical morality play between right and wrong, money and sanity. Detroit loves him for his genuine personality, but as Green becomes corporatized — like trading hand-me-downs for slick suits — their relationship crumbles. When his coworkers need Green to strike with them, he chooses to cross the picket line in order to keep working. It’s as if he’s had a taste of the forbidden fruit and can’t pry himself away from the wages of sin.
Sorry to Bother You is a satire typed out in bold, colorful letters. The imagery and situation are lurid, sticking to your memory long after the movie’s credits rolled. There is almost no forgetting the crescendo the film builds to (and I’d hate to spoil any of your fun). The movie’s ridiculous nature allows itself to laugh while questioning the injustice of racial inequality and capitalist exploitation. And there’s no timelier a moment than the present to ask those questions; what do we value in this country when it feels like everything is devolving into chaos?
Monica Castillo is a writer and critic based in New York City. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, Variety, The Village Voice, RogerEbert.com, Remezcla, NPR and The Boston Globe. She completed her master’s at the University of Southern California as the school’s first film critic fellow.