July 13, 2018
If you are old enough to remember the release of Office Space (1999), you’ll recall the lukewarm critical reception and the thudding $10 million box office gross. Audiences across the country (including yours truly) thought it was a decent comedy that had its moments but was easily forgettable. Now, nearly 20 years later, it’s considered a cult classic and one of the greatest workplace satires of all time, laying the groundwork for beloved small-screen fare like The Office and Parks and Recreation. It was a movie well ahead of its time.
It’s the story of Cassius Green, an economically struggling black millennial in the midst of an existential crisis who takes a job as a telemarketer and discovers that the secret to success is his natural talent for channeling his inner “white voice.” Soon, Cassius is elevated to “power caller,” an upper level status of the job which requires a ridiculously long elevator code to get to. It’s also an extremely lucrative position where you are no longer selling book sets or asking for donations; you are pitching the worst capitalism has to offer. Once there, Cassius must navigate all sorts of social and moral obstacles: alienating one’s friends by becoming a company man, selling out vs. seizing opportunity, to cross the picket line or not to cross the picket line.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This abyss of a rabbit hole burrows much deeper but anything more plot-wise would be entering spoiler territory.
Lakeith Stanfield is spectacular as Cassius and he’s joined by a strong list of up-and-coming supporting talent including Tessa Thompson as his performance-artist girlfriend with a penchant for message earrings, The Walking Dead’s Steven Yuen as Cassius’ political activist coworker, and Power’s Omari Hardwick as Cassius’ caller mentor. Veteran actors Danny Glover and Terry Crews are also along for the ride in small but impressive roles, and Armie Hammer’s harrowing turn as corporate CEO Steve Lift will leave your skin crawling. There’s also some great voice work put in by David Cross (Stanfield’s white voice), Patton Oswalt (Hardwick’s white voice), and Rosario Dawson (the voice of the elevator).
Former telemarketer and director Boots Riley uses his knowledge of the industry as well as an incredibly artistic eye to create a horrifying alt-Oakland where the poor are exploited, where racism wears many masks, and where television’s number one show is called I Got the Sh*t Kicked Out of Me, a schadenfreude-fueled reality series designed to satisfy society’s hankering for a bit of the old ultra-violence. So not too far off from actual America circa 2018.
Still, it’s a world of magical realism and science fiction, and those are the aspects that push the movie over the edge from mere satire into groundbreaking originality. For example, any time Cassius makes a telemarketing call, his desk– and by extension the audience–is dropped unflinchingly into the living room of the person receiving the call. It’s jarring and awkward but it totally works in breaking down the wall between the two ends of the phone line.
Comparisons will be made to last year’s brilliant Get Out, but Sorry to Bother You is more like a feature-length version of the most F’d up episodes of FX’s Atlanta; the ones that are more haunting than hilarious. It’s dark, so expect more uneasy is-it-even-okay-to-laugh-at-that? chuckles than belly guffaws. The film tackles nearly every socio-political issue on today’s table with the reckless abandon of a blitzing linebacker, ears pinned back, ready to spear the quarterback: What is the future of labor? What does it mean to become an unwitting YouTube sensation? Would you compromise your authenticity to maintain your upward trajectory on the professional ladder?
Insightful, engaging, and enraging, Sorry to Bother You is certain to be a conversation starter for years to come. It’s freaky, fun, weird and amazing; a sort of Spike Lee-meets-Stanley Kubrick risk fest. I may be kicking myself in five, ten, or twenty years for not giving it the full five stars, but as a prisoner of the moment I’ll go with…
Star Rating: 4.25 out of 5