Much as I hate the Trump presidency, I love the wave of African-American satire in response to it. After the delirious highs of Get Out, we get the uproarious Sorry to Bother You, which plays like the demented offspring of Office Space and Being John Malkovich. If this doesn’t turn out to be the comedy of 2018, I’d like to see the movie that does.
Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green, a young Oaklander whose desperate financial circumstances cause him to take the world’s crappiest telemarketing job. However, once Cash learns to use a “white voice” (which is dubbed by David Cross) on the phone, he starts making sales and getting noticed by the bosses. Meanwhile, his radical artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson, with four different colors in her hair) tries to square his newfound success with her knowledge of the straight-up evil that his company is.
Rapper Boots Riley makes his feature debut here. (His rap group The Coup provides the music on the soundtrack.) He does as good a job as anyone else at conjuring up a corporate hellscape. It’s presided over by Worry Free Living, a conglomerate that provides workers with free food and housing in exchange for a lifetime of wage-free labor — slavery that actually is a choice. Riley may be new to filmmaking, but he delivers visual gags like an experienced hand, from Detroit’s handmade earrings (one set depicting a prisoner in an electric chair) to recurring shots of college football players who seem to be practicing a whole other sport and two of Cash’s coworkers getting assaulted by a copying machine. There’s also a mortifying set piece at a Worry Free party where the billionaire CEO (Armie Hammer) challenges Cash to rap for the white executives — because he’s black, you see — and Cash abases himself while the guests eat it up. Through all the hijinks, the movie keeps its eye on its capitalist targets, as one telemarketer (Steven Yeun) tries to unionize his coworkers and the white bosses co-opt their most valuable employee by handing Cash a promotion. He ends up with his own personal elevator with a computerized voice (Rosario Dawson) that greets him by name and compliments him sexually.
Somehow, the movie does not lose its satirical focus when the buggiest plot twist of the year (and maybe the decade) hits in the last 30 minutes or so. This development is appalling in all the best ways, and Stanfield — who initially seems to have a boring role compared to his co-stars’ — turns in a leonine performance as a flunky who’s shaken to his core when he finds out just what he’s sold himself to. It serves as a reminder that our economic system was built on slave labor and that our captains of industry will revert to it if we let them. It also features guys with horse penises and the villain explaining his plan through a claymation short film. A master class in comic outrage, Sorry to Bother You is a cinematic act of bomb throwing that made me laugh and laugh.
Sorry to Bother You
Starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson. Written and directed by Boots Riley. Rated R.