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‘Sorry to Bother You’ (review)

Produced by Nina Yang Bongiovi, Kelly Williams,
Jonathan Duffy, Charles D. King,
George Rush, Forest Whitaker
Written and Directed by Boots Riley
Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson,
Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews,
Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Danny Glover,
Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer


The less you know about Sorry to Bother You going in, the better.  So, please feel free to stop reading this review and head straight to the nearest movie theater showing the feature debut of rapper/director Boots Riley.

However, if you’d like a bit more to go on and/or if you’ve already seen the coming attractions trailer, then it’s probably safe to say the plot involves a broke young black man named Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield, a.k.a. the indispensably awesome Darius on Atlanta) who gets a job at a crappy telemarketing call center and learns from an older black employee (Danny Glover) that the key to success in the job is using a “white voice” on the phone.

And sure, while there’s a measure of sad truth in the statement, it also sounds at first like the kind of potentially lazy gag famously parodied on The Simpsons with the stand-up comedy bit, “Black guys drive a car like this, but white guys drive like this!”  Yet it’s a sign of Riley’s savvy that his screenplay is careful to note “white voice” doesn’t mean you simply sound white — and, indeed, there are plenty of actual white people in the call center faring just as poorly as Cash.

Instead, “white voice” is about the illusion that you don’t have a care in the world, everything’s great, and if people listen to you, they’re gonna win so much they’ll get tired of winning.  It’s the voice that hucksters and con men have used throughout history to swindle suckers — and once Cash learns to channel his own inner Trump, he rockets through the corporate ranks until he comes face to face with business tycoon Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, having a blast as the human embodiment of “white voice”).

So, Cash succeeds beyond his wildest dreams and lives happily ever after…right?  Well, not exactly, because, as you may have guessed, Riley’s film is all about the complicated illusion of success, what’s lost in the name of winning, what it means to be really good at something inherently evil, and more.

But for all its weighty socioeconomic and political themes, Sorry to Bother You isn’t a high-minded, bleeding heart slog.  Instead, it’s a gleeful kitchen sink throwback to the satiric, absurdist, wildly inventive indies of the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s like Repo Man, Being John Malkovich, Bamboozled, and Fight Club combined with a dash of Mike Judge’s 2006 comic (yet eerily prescient) dystopic fantasia, Idiocracy.

In other words, Riley clearly isn’t shooting for a four-quadrant crowd pleaser, and even audiences dazzled by his film’s creative energy are likely to notice that some ideas work better than others and the pacing occasionally drags (especially towards the end).  Still, the minor flaws aren’t especially bothersome and in a summer (and decade) packed with so many sequels, reboots, and retreads, audiences seeking a cinematic experience as fresh and unpredictable as this are unlikely to be sorry.


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