Sorry to Bother You is an incredibly funny film, but it offers one of the most despairing, timely portraits of the current nightmare of work under late capitalism.
The sharpness of contemporary digital images is particularly pronounced in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. The intensity of the image detail combines with the mostly static images to emphasize the pressure of stasis on Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a poor man living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage in Oakland. We meet Cash pulling a hustle in an interview for a telemarketing job, bringing with him an employee of the month placard and even a high school trophy. The prospective employer (Robert Longstreet) immediately calls his bluff, pointing out that every reference Cash supplied was bogus, only to say that the high-turnover world of telemarketing has no disqualifying barriers for entry and that his deception shows initiative. The job may be terrible, but it’s a lifeline for Cash, who is behind on his rent to his uncle, who himself is facing repossession for his own default payments.
Still, the doldrums and relentless failure of telemarketing rapidly sap Cash’s energy, until one day a coworker (Danny Glover) advises him to win over clients with his “white voice,” which he defines not merely as a more formal speech but a projection of calm and subtle authority. Cash proves a deft hand at mastering this technique and soon he is using his new voice (provided by David Cross) to make sale after sale, impressing his managers and earning talk of promotion to the big-money marketing company on a higher floor. Yet as Cash’s career soars, he finds himself pressured by a rabble-rousing coworker, Squeeze (Steven Yeun), who wants the telemarketers to unionize. As Cash weighs his morality against his financial stability, he must also contend with the judgment of his fiancée, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), an artist whose anti-establishment views add further turmoil to his inner conflict.
Having set up this straightforward moral quandary, the film abruptly shifts into something more ominous. As Squeeze’s protests gain traction, Cash must enter the office each morning with a police escort who gleefully clubs striking workers attempting to prevent them from passing. This lurch into violence does not come from nowhere; Riley establishes a grimly satiric alternate present in which media culture has collapsed into extended ads (and news reports doubling as such) for Worry Free, an expanding labor allocation company that pays workers in room and board, and grotesque mass entertainment such as a game show where contestants are pummeled and debased.
That spoof of devolved mass culture is one of the film’s numerous comic asides, which pile up so heavily around the main plot that it’s easy to lose track of the sheer ambition of Riley’s list of warped social ills. The sheer barrage means that some gags get lost in the shuffle, none more so than the arc of Detroit’s preparation and unveiling of her latest gallery, the latest in a long line of goofs on pretentious art that is just as leaden and stale as all the rest. Nonetheless, Riley’s hit ratio is impressive, and he lashes out at major targets of our crumbling infrastructure. Worry Free and its nightmarishly glib, self-righteous CEO (Armie Hammer) represent an extreme but not impossible labor future in America, a fulfillment of the contemporary private sector’s unstated goal of rolling back worker protections to the 19th century. On the flipside is the comedy of Squeeze attempting to organize a union for something like telemarketing, only for the film to point out that such a concept is only funny in a nation that has already become desensitized to the near-total collapse of unions in the country.
Sorry to Bother You frequently matches its ambitious script with acute visual acumen. A montage of Cash’s material wealth expanding with his job success does not merely replace his humble belongings with swanky nouveau riche objects but instead morphs objects, which split and grow like tumors. Later, as Cash stumbles across an elaborate and horrific conspiracy, the film kicks into overdrive, plunging the image into deep, throbbing pulses of color that make for an ad-hoc neo-noir/sci-fi horror on top of the already chaotic satire. For all Riley’s visual tricks and Doug Emmett’s vivid palettes, however, perhaps the most bracing image is that of Cash’s face, which is first a mask of abashed humility that eventually, even at the character’s height, turns into something more haunted, the look of a man who must enter the gates of Hell every day in order to survive. Sorry to Bother You is an incredibly funny film, but it offers one of the most despairing, timely portraits of the current nightmare of work under late capitalism.