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Monday, July 09, 2018

Sorry to Bother You

I guarantee that you have never seen a movie like Sorry to Bother You.  While it's not a complete original (you could argue that the movie is an odd mix of Mike Judge's Office Space and the dark satire of Terry Gilliam), the elements here are so seemingly random yet expertly plotted out that you will never be able to guess where the film is going at any time. 

Writer and director Boots Riley has managed to make a movie that has deep social insights, while at the same time going into hilarious absurdist comedy.  He doesn't always succeed, however.  A few of his points seem a bit heavy-handed and forced.  Regardless, on the whole, you just have to admire him for actually attempting a film such as this.  This is his first feature, so maybe he felt emboldened and that he had nothing to lose.  What he has essentially done is make a social satire, a wacky comedy, and a Sci-Fi thriller all mixed into a narrative that surprisingly is able to make sense of it all.  This is a movie that is constantly making sharp veering turns into other narrative territories, and just when you think you have it figured out, it goes somewhere you don't expect it to.  And yet, the audience never suffers whiplash, which shows a remarkable filmmaking talent for his first time out.

The film is set in an unspecified time, but it seems to be in the near future where the world has essentially become a dystopian society divided by a company that is basically drawing people into slave labor.  We see this world through the eyes of Cassius Green (the versatile Lakeith Stanfield, from Get Out and TV's Atlanta), an unemployed man who lives with his starving artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his uncle's garage.  Cassius desperately needs a job.  He's behind in his rent with his uncle (Terry Crews), and can't afford a decent car.  Pretty soon, he's going to lose his home as well, as the uncle has financial problems as well.  Desperate for work, Cassius turns to RegalView, a soulless company that hires telemarketers, but pays only by commission and offers no benefits.

The movie shows its sense of humor early on when Cassius shows up to the job interview with a fake employee of the month award for a company he never worked at, and phony trophy that he made himself.  The guy giving the interview quickly pieces together that Cassius is full of it just by making a few quick calls, but he admires his ambition, so he hires him.  As soon as Cassius is seated at his little cubicle and has to start making calls to uninterested clients, he realizes he's made a mistake, and that he might not be cut out for telemarketing.  A veteran in the workforce seated next to him (Danny Glover) knows what Cassius is doing wrong.  He has to work on his "White Voice" when making his sales pitch.  This way, he will sound less threatening to potential clients.  Cassius is uncertain at first, but before long he has perfected his "white guy voice", and his dialogue is being dubbed over by comic actor David Cross whenever he switches over to it.  Because of his mastery of sounding pleasant and bland over the phone, he suddenly becomes a master of his industry, and is making more sales than anyone else.

His bosses notice his sales number, and Cassius is promoted to being a "Power Caller", which means he gets to work on the luxurious upper floor with the big executives, gets better pay, and gets to work on bigger deals.  The deals that Cassius finds himself working on over the phone are illegal and shady, but Cassius is enjoying his power and status too much to care.  The company's primary client is Worry Free, a corporation that promises people lifetime housing and employment, but it essentially boils down to slave labor.  Cassius is so emboldened with his own self worth that he barely bats an eye at what he's selling or dealing with.  His girlfriend, Detroit, however is more concerned, and joins many of Cassius' fellow telemarketers in a protest for better pay and working conditions for those who are not "power callers" like her boyfriend. 

And just when you think Sorry to Bother You is going to be a social satire about the wealthy and the poor, the movie throws a curve ball when Cassius meets up with the head of the Worry Free Corporation (Armie Hammer), and discovers some unsettling truths behind the company.  It's at this point that the movie starts to veer into thriller and Science Fiction, with plot elements that I cannot possibly successfully explain, and yet the movie manages to make it all work come together.  If you can, avoid reading other reviews that might hint at the revelation.  It's best to walk in as cold as possible.  This is certainly a bold movie, and one that you can never really pin down while you are watching it.  True, not all of it works.  Running gags surrounding a TV game show where contestants are beaten up severely for cash, and a viral video involving someone getting hit in the head with a soda can don't really work as intended, and are a bit too obvious in their satire about society and our obsession with media.  But the rest of the time, this is a very funny and surprisingly complex film that looks at a lot of issues, but is also never afraid to just cut loose and be wonderfully bizarre.

The fact that the movie manages to look at such a wide number of subjects and still manage to be entertaining speaks not only for Mr. Riley's broad outlook, but also at his skill as a filmmaker.  He wants to make a point, but he also wants us to have fun, and maybe be frightened just a little.  Even if a couple elements here are familiar, you're bound to be impressed with the imagination that went into this.  I can only hope that the film finds an audience, so that he can continue to expand his vision, as he's definitely got something with this.

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