The dizzying, twisted satire of work in post “Black Lives Matter” America that is “Sorry to Bother You” comes close to taking your breath away during its first 40 giddy minutes.
It’s no shock that the jokes about the gig economy and the winner-take-all American system kind of exhaust themselves at about that point. As over-the-top as what we see might be, it’s so close to grim reality for much of working America as to turn dispiriting after a while.
But boy, lyricist-turned-writer/director Boots Riley is onto something. Corporations that trade “security” for a lifetime of low wages and dead-end prospects, “visionary entrepreneurs” who are basically just hype-and-hustle slave masters, phony incentives and the reality of just what “we” represent to “them” — consumers here solely to give them money, workers giving up our time and lives in greater and greater proportions — it’s all here.
He overreaches and delivers a third act that’s not nearly as clever as he thinks it or he is, but “Sorry” still manages laughs that hurt.
Lakeith Stanfield of “Get Out” and “Atlanta” is Cassius Green, an Oakland drudge stuck on the bottom rung of the employment ladder. He’s so hard up he brings Employee of the Month plaques and “moot court” trophies to job interviews. They’re fake.
But that doesn’t matter at RegalVision. The boss (Robert Longstreet) is onto him, but as he’ll hire anyone who breathes, can read and speak English, Cassius is hired. He’ll be a commission only telemarketer, peddling encyclopedias and the like to hapless, unwilling folks unfortunate enough to pick up the phone.
A witty touch. Cassius, who uses “Sorry to bother you” as his opening line in cold calls, is dropped (literally) into the living room, kitchen or bedroom of whoever he calls and interrupts, face to face with the broke, the broken-hearted and the copulating, none of whom are interested in his spiel.
“Stick to the Script” his foul-mouthed cheerleader/supervisor (Michael X. Sommers, hilarious) preaches. But it’s not until the Old Man of the Phone Banks (Danny Glover, perfect) passes on his wisdom that things work out for Cassius.
“Hey, Youngblood. Use your white voice!”
Damned if sounding and reasoning like David Cross (the white voice Cassius comes up with) doesn’t pay off. He might just make it out of the basement call center into “Power Caller” status, one shiny, access-limited elevator ride up to where the “ballers” of this business make calls to high rollers — governments in need of arms, Chinese oligarchs in need of cheaper phone assemblers, the big money cold calls.
“Bag’em and tag’em” and that big payday gig can be yours, YoungBlood Cassius is assured.
His artist girlfriend (Tessa Thompson, uncomfortable in this sort of second-banana role), a sign-spinner in this side hustle world, is impressed with his initiative. Until, that is, union agitation starts at RegalVision thanks to the one guy (Steven Yuen) who sees the Big Picture starvation-wage economy America is settling into. Will Cassius sell out? “How quickly will he sell out?” is the better question. Which he dodges.
“You’re sidestepping more than The Temptations!”
The temptations of “visionary” Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, all “Holla at yo’ boy” ghetto and the funniest he’s ever been), who runs Worry Free, a live-your-work/work-to-live corporation that’s a little Apple, a lot Google, a lot more Amazon with Lyft wages, prove too hard to resist. Cassius may get his Maserati, bail his uncle (Terry Crews) out of hock and move out of that uncle’s garage (literally). But at what cost?
There’s a little “Soylent Green” and “Brazil,” The Truman Show” and Karl Marx in all this, and Riley gives this just-past-the-present future the sting of recognition, workers with zero power and no rights facing an economy stacked against them at every turn.
If you think of the labor/capital arrangement between NFL players and their “owners,” you’re not far off from what this film suggests.
The setting — telemarketing centers — earns head-nods of recognition. It’s a predatory business, sort of the ultimate expression of capitalism. It makes you think of the National Do Not Call Registry, a joke that was the only piece of consumer protection legislation ever passed by a Republican Congress. How’s that working out for you? Ever stop to wonder why it doesn’t work?
Stanfield has funny fight scenes with Jermaine Fowler, playing Sal, our hero’s best friend and somebody ready to agitate against the injustice of the workplace, as soon as somebody explains what those injustices are. And there are amusing “White Voice” encounters with the King of the “Power Callers” (Omari Hardwick of TV’s “Power”).
The picture has the rage and energy of early Spike Lee films, and the same “How do I END this?” third act failings. I wanted to love it, but it stalls long before it takes a turn towards something so bizarre it’ll be taught in film schools for decades, “How NOT to give your sci-fi satire a climax.”
As it is, “Sorry to Bother You” has enough injustice every working person, black, white or whatever, has faced to make you laugh in recognition, and seethe about all the way home after seeing it.
Too bad they’re selling this as this year’s “Get Out.” It isn’t.
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Lakeith Stanfield, Terry Cruise, Omari Hardwick, Danny Glover, Armie Hammer
Credits: Written and directed by Boots Riley. An Annapurna release.
Running time: 1:45