First-time feature maker Boots Riley has created a subversive, surreal, satirical comedy that melds humour with social commentary in its exploration of identity politics and predictions of a future where workers are being sold the benefits of sacrificing individuality and identity to serve corporate interests. In perhaps his best performance since his breakout in Short Term 12, Lakeith Stanfield features as Cassius Green, a young man who is stone cold broke, living in his uncle’s garage and buying 40 cents worth of gas at a time. So desperate for a job, he accepts a telemarketing position at a place called Regal View, a company that flogs books to gullible customers. Unable to make much headway with any of the people he calls, a colleague tells him to use his ‘white’ voice. His life changes immediately and it isn’t long before Cassius is climbing the corporate ladder or, as is this case in this instance, riding the golden elevator to join the elite ‘power callers’ on the top floor, leaving behind the co-workers, including his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), who are fighting to establish a union.
The story takes place in a parallel version of current-day Oakland where a ‘lifestyle’ called Worry Free is being marketed to the population with promises to eliminate any uncertainty about your future by giving you a lifetime labour contract and the provision of food and accommodation. Of course, it is nothing more than modern slavery and there seems little doubt that Riley is taking aim at Amazon and other multi-nationals for whom company profits and personal fortunes are built on the back of cripplingly low wages and poor working conditions. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that under such circumstances, the most popular show on television is a program called I Got the Shit Kicked out of Me which literally comprises nothing more than people, as the title suggests, getting beaten up to the delight of a baying audience. It is not hard to envision a time when such a program might exist, the downtrodden masses taking great delight in seeing others suffer and, let’s face it, the unquenchable thirst for notoriety that has made reality television such a success suggests there would be no shortage of participants willing to endure such debasement in their quest for fame and fortune, which is exactly the point Riley is trying to make.
When he realises that his new responsibility is selling Worry Free workers’ time – making him a modern day slave trader – Cassius finds himself conflicted between his conscience and the perks that come with his success and, the more successful he becomes, the more he loses sight of the things that are most important to him, such as Detroit. It is when Cassius meets Worry Free CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) that things become even more bizarre as he stumbles upon the latest initiative the company is developing to increase worker productivity even further, a development that certainly comes as a surprise. The challenge for Riley comes in hoping that viewers can absorb the messages that, whilst hardly subtle, could easily be lost on those unwilling to look beyond the humour, much of which is reminiscent of filmmakers such as Michel Gondry, Terry Gilliam or Charlie Kaufman.
Thompson (Annihilation, Thor: Ragnarok) lights up the screen every time she appears, with Detroit’s belief in the power of confrontational art to challenge capitalist hegemony (and the power of large companies to restrict individuality and expression) obviously at odds with Cassius’ rise through the ranks of perhaps the most powerful and potentially dangerous corporation of all. Morphing from office comedy to something more akin to horror or sci-fi, Sorry to Bother You is certainly weird and unsettling at times but, with supporting roles from the likes of Glover, Terry Crews, and Steven Yeun, along with voice work from Lily James, Rosario Dawson, David Cross and Patton Oswalt, it makes for an utterly unique movie that is very funny but also has plenty to say about the state of the world.