Watching Sorry to Bother You feels like strapping into a wind tunnel and letting the entire apparatus rip away at you like the Big Bad Wolf. This is such a ripping ride of unexpected and exceptional and unique prowess that it’s impossible to stop it once it’s started. Not that you’d want to, either, because it’s more thoughtful, funny, and thrilling than almost every other drama, comedy, and thriller this year.
Written and directed by The Coup frontman Boots Riley, it tells the story of Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), an Oakland native—apparently in a near-alternate future—struggling to find meaning in his life. Living in his uncle’s garage, he can’t seem to find a foothold in the monotonous grind of life, just like how his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is stuck working as a sign spinner on a nearby street corner.
And things don’t appear to be trending up when he lands a job at as a telemarketer, a position that finds him in a terrible environment and unable to find success. That is, however, until his coworker Langston (Danny Glover) gives him a piece of advice: use your white voice. And that little shift changes Cash’s entire life.
He starts succeeding. He’s closing deals left and right and he’s eventually promoted to a “power caller.” This clashes harshly with his other coworkers and their attempt to picket and unionize, siding with his coked-out and erratic CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). That’s because Lift is offering what Cash has been looking for all this time: financial security. The only problem is it’s going to cost him a contract that keeps him at the company for the rest of his life.
Just on those few things, there’s so much to unpack there already. As part of a marginalized minority, Cash endures a life that systemically pushes him back down when all he wants to do is stand like any other person. But that desire has to rub up against what he’s willing to give up eventually, and in this case, it’s modern indentured servitude and stepping on the solidarity of those around you.
It’s a broad encapsulation of hyperspecific details on what it’s like to live as a discriminated person within a discriminated people. And by framing it within a reality that is just close enough to plausible, it feels as alarming as it does whimsical. The idea of office slavery in the Oakland of today? Not that far-fetched when you see how closely Lift’s company’s tactics of shoving debt into the hands of impoverished people to keep them there mirrors real life. This is living through exploitation.
And Cash’s experience is anchored firmly in code-switching, a subsurface but roiling indignity that is hard to explain to anyone that hasn’t had it ingrained in them as a survival instinct. Your entire culture and history and personal affectations are smothered by the singular need to survive. The most privileged out there have a single speed and they thrive on it because the world is tuned to that gear. The rest of the world has to change languages, float in and out of customs and idioms, change in and out of clothes and postures just to get a job.
That is an entire world’s worth of frustrations condensed down into the roaring but uncomfortable laughs induced by David Cross voicing Cash’s white voice. The contrast alone of the two actors’ line deliveries is funny enough, but the context of why that matters makes it shockingly hilarious. But the truth of its comedy is also what makes you think and reflect on it.
That’s an important notion here, too. This is not a movie that reflects our world; it interprets it. It sees the pillars of what holds the status quo in our society—good and bad, and hell, good and bad may also be another person’s bittersweet and ironic—and explores what built them. It’s a far more taxing exercise than simply showing us what we already know we experience on a daily basis, but it’s also far more rewarding. Just look at what Get Out accomplished.
To be fair, Get Out this is not. The nuance of that film is almost wholly missing (his name is Cash Green, after all), but it also doesn’t need it. The madcap presentation of Michel Gondry-style flourishes dive-bombing the audience 40 times a minute is perfect for this film. It speeds along so you don’t notice the rough edges and only focus on the core of what it wants to show you.
So much of that is held taut, too, by the two leads Stanfield and Thompson. They seem to be moving as if they are sprinting alongside the movie—just barely keeping up—but with enough consideration and gravity that it keeps them and the story from blowing all the way out from our grasp. The entire cast, truly, feels perfectly slotted into their roles.
All the hype you’ve heard about this movie is probably right. And it’s also probably not enough. This movie is weirder, funnier, and more attuned to what it needs to be than you can possibly convey in words. But here is my best attempt at it: you need to go see Sorry to Bother You.
Final Score: 9 out of 10