During one of his first calls for the telemarketing firm Regalview, Cassius Green (Atlanta and Get Out supporting player Lakeith Stanfield) tries to sell a book collection to a polite but reserved older white woman. Before he can get into his pitch, the woman cuts him off and apologizes, explaining that she has no money because her husband’s medical bills have wiped them out and still needs more help. Moved to compassion but ordered by his boss to stick to the script, Cash mentions the health benefits offered by one of the volumes he’s selling. Embarrassment creeps across Cash’s brow as the woman breaks into tears and hangs up on him.
Writer and director Boots Riley, frontman for leftie rap group The Coup, visually represents the telemarketing exchanges by having the caller in his desk slam into the space occupied by the potential customer, forcing the two people to face one another as they conduct business, no matter how uncomfortable the scenario they interrupt. It’s an absurdly funny bit, illustrating the violence of the disruption forced by Regalview, but it also shows how the system exploits and distorts the human connections we all want. These people could interact as people, they could live and love and exist, but the need for money gets in the way.
With its dada-esque sketch comedy bits and cynicism about inescapable capitalism, Sorry to Bother You‘s angry critique of market ethics drives the jokes and images that will likely stick with viewers long after they leave the theater. But its this longing for relationship, this desire to simply live that justifies the strange shocks that follow.
The movie traces Cash’s rise from working stiff living in the garage of his soon-to-be foreclosed upon Uncle Sergio (Terry Crews) to a lucrative, top-level “power-caller” in Regalview. The secret of his success comes from elder caller Langston (Danny Glover), who teaches him to use his “white voice.” More than a higher-pitched nasal version of his own voice, Cash’s “white voice” (provided by David Cross) comes from a feeling of confidence provided by white supremacy — “the feeling that you’re about to jump in your own Ferrari as soon as you get off this call,” as Langston puts it; “that you’ve never been fired, only laid off.” Cash’s rise to power caller puts him at odds with his experimental artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and a fellow employee (Steven Yeun) trying to unionize the Regalview callers.
All of that sounds like the plot of a realistic social drama, but Sorry to Bother You is anything but. Riley gets excellent performances from his outstanding cast, particularly Lakeith Stanfield, who has cemented his place as one of the most intriguingly odd actors working today, in the vein of David Bowie or Christopher Walken.
But as pleasing as the cast might be, it’s clear that Riley has no desire to placate the audience, choosing instead to revel moments of antihumor and intentionally unusual filmmaking, such as the clearly fake look of Cross’s voice coming out of Stanfield’s mouth or an elevator punching gag that goes on far, far too long. Nobody in this world feels right or human, as cash ruins everything around Cash.
More than just a stylistic choice, Riley’s discomfort aesthetic directly counters the rhetoric of modern big business, which promises ease and pleasure at the cost of one’s identity. As run by “relatable” rich guy Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) the Amazon/Foxconn-style Worryfree offers its increasingly huge workforce food, shelter, and happiness in exchange for their humanity.
The degree to which Lift and Worryfree take that humanity leads to some of the movie’s most horrifying and powerful jokes. But its the smaller, more recognizable ways that Cash and the others lose themselves to business endeavors that truly haunt you. Sorry to Bother You has plenty of good gags, but it’s hard to laugh when you realize it’s just repeating the jokes American capitalism plays on us all, jokes that drown out the human communities we could have.