Review: 'Sorry to Bother You'

New film by Boots Riley of The Coup examines the destructive, surreal force of privilege
Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green in Boots Riley's 'Sorry to Bother You.'

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) can't get a break. He lives in Sergio's (Terry Crews) downstairs garage but hasn't paid the rent in months because he can't find a job. When Cassius and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) start making out in the morning, the garage door accidentally opens. The Oakland neighborhood they live in is suddenly visible and alive with street traffic and passersby. Someone says to the couple, "Get a room!"

Cassius replies, mumbling under his breath, "I've already got one," before shutting the door.

In his debut feature film Sorry to Bother You, writer and director Boots Riley builds the story inside the everyday reality of Cassius's money problems. Stanfield, who plays Darius on the FX show Atlanta, persuades the audience that those problems are real with a mix of humor and melancholy. His director backs him up with jokes, or sight gags, that play out on camera. They reinforce the idea that Cassius doesn't have a room of his own and is sadly resigned to the fact that the society he lives in has disempowered him from getting one. Everything in his life is broken or about to fall apart. His car is a smoke-spewing relic with mismatched metal panels and windshield wipers that have to be cranked by hand. When he pulls the vehicle up to a gas station, he tells the cashier to put 40 in his tank before dropping a quarter, a nickel and a dime in front of her.

Once this sense of financial insecurity that Cassius suffers from is established, Riley then decides to depart from the realistic portrayal of an actual Oakland neighborhood and the residents who live there. He tries a variety of genres on for size to see which one will get his message across best. Comedy gives way to satire, which gets replaced by a thriller that ultimately evolves into a sci-fi horror film. Each shift in tone is Riley's way of both heightening reality—the sets are saturated with neo-psychedelic blues, oranges and maroons—and commenting on an economic hierarchy that disadvantages people of color. Along the way, the director provides Stanfield with as much justifiable paranoia as Roman Polanski did for Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby (1968).

That dormant paranoia wakes up inside of Cassius when his friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) sets up a job interview for him at the telemarketing company he works for. The downtown office is located in the basement. It's the second underground location in the movie that positions people with more privilege physically above Cassius. After he's hired, the floor manager Johnny (Michael X. Sommers) teaches him the company mantra, "Stick to the Script." But after several failed phone calls, he finds that the script isn't working for him. In the cubicle next to him, a co-worker named Langston (Danny Glover, in a wry cameo) suggests that Cassius would make more progress if he adopted a "white" voice. Reluctantly at first, Cassius gives it a try.

When he opens his mouth to imitate a white man's, Riley surprises us by dubbing Stanfield's voice with a white actor's—David Cross (who in turn summons Tobias Fünke, the TV character he plays on Arrested Development). Passing as white, Cassius becomes the most successful telemarketer in the room and is subsequently promoted to work upstairs. To gain entry into that world, you take a gilded elevator ride that glides up to the top floor. He arrives in this penthouse office space, sans narrow cubicles or fluorescent overhead lights, and steps into a scene straight out of Dwell magazine. This is what gentrification is starting to look like in Oakland. The natives are losing access to work and housing as the largely white culture of tech moves in and displaces them.

Riley also displaces Cassius by granting him access to the company upstairs. Once he sees how things work up there, his political consciousness is also raised, and compromised. He finds out that his employer is the lifestyle guru Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the CEO of a suspicious, New Age conglomerate ironically named WorryFree. Their advertising campaign—which has been lingering in the movie's background on billboards and TV commercials—promises a rent-free, communal way of living. There is a cost, of course, and one that's similar to the dictatorial state Margaret Atwood imagined in The Handmaid's Tale. One in which a few white men own our thoughts and labor, our souls and bodies. They've taught us to worship the false god of capitalism, but that god of ill-gotten affluence blesses only them.

Sorry to Bother You
R; 105 Mins.

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