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Monday, August 6, 2018

Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018)

* * * 1/2

Director: Boots Riley
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield

Sorry to Bother You is a work of surrealism that, like all great works of satire, manages to strike brutally close to home the more wildly it goes over the top. While the film's big, grotesque twist is pretty far outside the realm of possibility (at least, one desperately hopes so), the film's depiction of income inequality and the effects of unchecked capitalism feels familiar even in its most exaggerated elements. If things continue on their current trajectory, where the top 1% have 40% of the wealth and governments have been steadily dismantling all of the mechanisms that once kept income disparity more in check and maintained a path for upward financial mobility, certain elements of Sorry to Bother You's narrative don't seem at all far fetched. An assured, inventive, and thought provoking film from Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You more than lives up to all the hype it's inspired since its debut at Sundance earlier this year.

Set in a reality that is somewhat, but not quite, like our own, Sorry to Bother You centers on Cash Green (Lakeith Stanfield), whose name would seem a bit too on the nose were it not for the fact that Riley is leaving nothing to chance or subtlety. This is an openly political piece of work that doesn't hide its meaning, couching everything in codes and embedding themes in the narrative; here the meaning is the narrative and the film confronts and discusses it as directly as possible. As the film opens Cash is down and out, living with his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his uncle's garage, promising that he'll be caught up on the back rent he owes (which his uncle desperately needs if he's going to keep his house) as soon as possible. In order to make good Cash gets a job as a telemarketer, where he quickly learns the secret to rising through the ranks and becoming a "power caller," a mysterious position which would allow him to move out of the cramped basement and up to the top floor.

As Cash is finding success, his co-worker, Squeeze (Steven Yuen), is sowing dissent, organizing the rest of the telemarketers in order to form a union so that they can achieve a living wage. When Cash stands with his co-workers, management decides to promote him in order to remove the leverage that his presence provides as the top seller in the group. Rather than continue to stand with his friends as they begin taking strike action, he dives headfirst into the privileges of being a power caller, bringing in enough money to move out of his uncle's garage and into a new apartment that he's able to equip with all the amenities, insisting that he hasn't sold out even as he crosses picket lines and his friends and former co-workers are literally beaten back by strike breaking security forces. At first he's able to justify his actions to himself, but that becomes increasingly difficult, and finally impossible, as he learns the nefarious truth behind what he's selling.

Sorry to Bother You is not a subtle movie, but the times that we're living in are not subtle either. Racism, while always present in our society, has returned to being so overt that bias and prejudice are the cornerstones of the current presidency and adherents wear their hate proudly and without fear of repercussion. Greed is so overt that one of the main arguments against raising the minimum wage is that it would reduce the amount of profit for shareholders. Sorry to Bother You is about both racism and greed and how they can fuel capitalism (which rests on a foundation of hundreds of years of free labor), eventually bringing its protagonist to a meeting with a megalomaniac who perfectly embodies that greed and racism. That's Steve Lift (Armie Hammer in a great performance as a person with absolutely no redeeming qualities), the CEO of WorryFree, a company that offers people the opportunity to stop stressing about how they're going to keep a roof over their head and food on their table in exchange for signing a lifetime work contract. It's slavery but because it's voluntary (and not actually called "slavery") it's legal and Steve has a plan to make his free labor force even more "efficient" with Cash's help, laying out a plan to embed Cash in the resistance movement as a "Martin Luther King figure" who will become a symbol of the resistance even as he works with power to slow the resistance down.

As portrayed in Sorry to Bother You capitalism is a system of dehumanization (quite literally) where those at the top are not merely hoarding the wealth, but actively denying the very humanity of those without power and resources. The ideas being explored in Sorry to Bother You aren't new, but Riley is able to explore them in a way that makes them feel like they're being given a fresh spin and in a way that doesn't make the film feel overly pedagogical. Oftentimes, overtly political movies sacrifice story and character for the sake of the message, but Sorry to Bother You is never anything less than entertaining even when it's proselytizing and Riley gives Stanfield enough to work with for him to create an actual and compelling character out of Cash. Although the subject matter is very serious, the film itself is often very funny (albeit darkly so) and leaves you feeling engaged and invigorated. Sorry to Bother You is provocative and ambitious and a great watch.

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