1. Sorry to Bother You has so many ideas busting out of every seam, so much ambition, so much it so urgently wants to say, that it feels almost churlish to point out that the movie ends up careening gloriously out of control. This is rapper and producer Boots Riley’s first movie, and it shows, in every possible way—good, bad, incredible, ridiculous—as if he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to make another one, so he threw every idea he ever had into this. There are moments in Sorry To Bother You that will make you want to jump giddily around the theater. There are also moments that will make you wonder who in the world gave this lunatic a camera. (Some of those moments are pretty giddy too.) The former far outnumbers the latter. But the latter moments are still there.
2. This is the sort of hellzapoppin’ freak show in which summarizing the plot feels like a fool’s errand, but let’s give it a try anyway. Lakeith Stanfield plays Cassius, a good-hearted guy who feels like his life is getting away from him and thus tries his hand at telemarketing, failing at it (in a series of fantastic scenes in which his desk literally drops into the homes of whomever he is dialing) until a colleague (Danny Glover, interesting until the movie drops him entirely) recommends he use his “white voice” on calls. Suddenly, Stanfield sounds exactly like David Cross at his most nasally and has become a superstar at the company, which leads him “upstairs,” where “supercallers” like him go after the Glengarry leads. That is just the launching off point: From there, we meet a Tony Robbins-type entrepreneur (Armie Hammer) who might also be a slave trader, Cassius’s radical artist girlfriend (Tessa Thompson), who wears earrings with so many mottos it’s a wonder she can hold up her head, and a revolutionary co-worker (Stephen Yeun) trying to rile the workers into rebelling against their masters. There are lots of other people too, and only some of them are half-horses. It’s quite a movie.
3. The first hour of Sorry to Bother You is like a funhouse fever dream, a slightly distorted version of our modern world—but only slightly. Riley takes aim at capitalism, at consumerism, at poverty, at the art world, at how difficult it is to be young and black in America and have two strikes against you no matter what you do, and he is incisive and smart and at times uproariously funny. (There is a whole separate movie to be made about the automated voice of the company’s elevator.) The movie is so packed with ideas that they pop up in all corners of the frame, and at its best can feel almost like a weaponized Zucker Abrahams Zucker comedy. The plot itself is just a clothesline for all he has to say, and man, does he have a lot to say. The movie can be a little exhausting, particularly after that first hour, when it starts to run out of gas and replaces its forward proplusion with increasingly silly surreality. Riley sometimes has eyes bigger than his stomach, but his approach is never, ever boring.
4. It helps tremendously to have a leading man like Stanfield, who was terrific in Get Out and Short Term 12 and even better on TV’s Atlanta. Stanfield has a natural, effortless, almost supernatural screen presence, a mystery to him one can’t quite solve. He is both earnest and removed, present and somewhere else entirely. He sets the exact right tone for Riley’s film, a guide and also another bewildered traveler. Thompson’s role is a little flashier but also thornier, since she tends to have to adjust to whatever plot role Riley needs her to play, handling every hurdle like it’s nothing. Hammer is a little less fun, or at least more familiar, as the evil capitalist who may or may not be trying to make some sort of human-horse hybrid—yes, that’s correct—but Yeun, who is on quite a roll lately, brings a level of normalcy and rationality to this crazy-ass world. And I’m sorry: Lakeith Stanfield talking with David Cross’s voice will never not be funny.
5. The final half hour of the movie really does go off the rails, in ways that are alternately entertaining and exasperating. Riley keeps throwing everything he can at the screen, like he’s not confident his fundamental story will hold us. (And he’s probably right.) By the time the horse people arrive, I’d argue he has lost the thread entirely, but it is still undeniably a blast to watch Riley keep raising the stakes, to keep expanding his central metaphor to the limit, until a story about capitalism and code-switching has become a call for revolution in the streets with the help of horse people. He has hit on something current and deeply relevant: This isn’t the world we live in, not exactly, but it sure does feel that way sometimes, and a little bit more every day. The movie hits the gut emotionally and intellectually, if not always logically. I can’t wait until Riley gets more comfortable and makes something truly revolutionary. Until then, Sorry To Bother You will more than suffice.
Director: Boots Riley
Writer: Boots Riley
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Stephen Yeun, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Terry Crews, Danny Glover
Release Date: July 6, 2018
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.