“I’m Paul Barlow, and this is my daughter Jo.”

“Malone.”

“You got a first name?”

“Yeah.”

Sorry To Bother You

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is an absurd, inventive new comedy that’s so playful and funny that its acidic satire of soul-crushing capitalism comes across a little more like an inspirational rallying cry than blind fury at a seemingly insurmountable wall of corporate greed and dehumanization. Though it’s that too.

If I was required by law to describe it in terms of movies that already exist, I’d say “low-wage OFFICE SPACE by way of Michel Gondry.” But fuck the law, because it feels like something very new, distinctive and of the moment, from the cast headed by Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson to the soundtrack to even the cool fonts and logos by children’s book illustrator J. Otto Seibold. Stanfield plays Cassius Green (yes, it’s a pun), who lives in his uncle (Terry Crews, STREET KINGS)’s garage until he finds his calling (oh shit, another pun) at a new telemarketing job. I mean, the place is a hellhole on the verge of a strike led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun, formerly of The Walking Dead), but he turns out to be really good at it after co-worker Langston (Danny Glover, PREDATOR 2) teaches him the secret of the “white voice.” It’s not mere code-switching, but a near supernatural channeling of a voice with no worries that he manifests by being dubbed by David Cross (ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS). It’s a broad and hacky joke made almost profound by its layers of subtext and power to creep out his friends and loved ones.

First-time writer-director Boots Riley (did you ask “the leader of the incendiary ’90s hip hop band The Coup?” Because yes, same Boots Riley) mines the exact type of absurdist satire that I crave: exaggerating current societal bullshit into dystopian horrors that feel like something from a weird dream but with a deeply unsettling feeling of truth, of oh jesus, they really would do something like that, wouldn’t they? For example here we have the WorryFree Corporation, who successfully market their iPhone-factory-meets-Heaven’s-Gate life-time contract jobs as a progressive new lifestyle choice. If you can’t see some tech company billionaire doing this and being hailed a genius for it then you’re more optimistic than me.

Like in the real world, the struggle is brightened by good people, particularly Cassius’s militant yet fun as hell girlfriend Detroit (Thompson, CREED), who I will describe as a raised fist with a mischievous smile. She seems like a lady who could show up at Pee-wee’s playhouse and recruit the whole gang for a protest, though most of the cheeky slogans on her t-shirts and earrings would have to be pixelated for Saturday morning television. Her avant-garde performance art involves condoms full of sheep’s blood but also references BERRY GORDY’S THE LAST DRAGON, and she’s part of an infamous protest art movement named after Left Eye from TLC. I like her.

So it’s got an odd brand of quirk, plus touches of magic realism and a lack of adherence to boring literalism that help that good old THEY LIVE style “it figures it would be somethin like this” poetic accuracy ground the story’s more surreal turns.

I should lay off trying to predict the future, but it seems to me people will look back on this period and see a thriving movement of black creativity that includes this movie, GET OUT, Atlanta, Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” video, Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer album and videos, Kendrick Lamar, Ryan Coogler, maybe Ava Duvernay and Barry Jenkins and some others. These works have so many overlapping themes and collaborators and it’s interesting that this and Coogler and the upcoming BLINDSPOTTING (haven’t seen it yet, but everybody says it’s great) all come out of Oakland. I guess when you grow up near the Wakandan science initiative (or Digital Underground) you can do great things.

I would like to register myself as an early adopter of Lakeith Stanfield. When he stole the first episode of Atlanta and I realized he was the same guy who played Snoop in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON and Junior in MILES AHEAD I knew he would be doing great things. And this is one of them. Also, can people give Armie Hammer some fucking credit now? I never read that thinkpiece about how he was the embodiment of white privilege or whatever, but I love that it was immediately followed by his slam dunk (but not awards nominated) performance in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME and now this crazed villain, a proper use of both his acting talent and his status as a recognizable name to help an indie movie get some financing. It’s not his fault we were too stupid to see THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., so leave the man alone. And hi-ho, Silver.

It’s still weird to me that Riley (like Jordan Peele before him) has suddenly transformed into an acclaimed filmmaker. I bought some Coup albums and saw them live a couple times early in the millennium. I had no idea Riley had written this script which inspired an album of the same name in 2012 and was published by McSweeney’s in 2014, so I can’t claim to be more than a dabbler. But The Coup could get pretty funky and their rebellious stance spoke to me in the Bush era. They gained some pop culture infamy after 9-11 because they were coincidentally about to release an album cover that had them blowing up the World Trade Center. They changed it to a visual pun about a molotov cocktail. I was attracted to song titles like “Genocide & Juice” even if I wasn’t about to (like Riley) call myself a communist.

Instead of growing out of them or having them fade over a long music career, Riley has crystallized his passions and they’ve been reincarnated more powerfully in this medium. The old pinko found a more powerful way to talk about labor rights through popular art. But this is more complex than the downtrodden worker vs. the heartless corporations. Cassius is us. He’s cool and aware and well meaning, but also would like to not live in the garage his whole life. Selling might not be fulfilling to him, but succeeding is. So yes, he loves and supports Detroit, he agrees with Squeeze’s worker’s revolt, but fuck man, he just got his shot to have money for the first time in his life, it’s not easy to give that up. I find myself very sympathetic to him in his temptation to sell out.

I love the irony that he talks his uncle out of signing up for WorryFree because he doesn’t want to see him exploited, but when he gets a promotion to Power Caller he has to rationalize having WorryFree as a top client, spreading their exploitation to others.

It’s true. These things can be hard to stand up against. There are so many little tentacles reaching into so many spots, and surviving is complicated. For example, there’s this giant Seattle corporation that I’m mad at for shutting down a tax that would’ve helped fight the homelessness crisis that I feel their presence here has exacerbated. But I don’t know if I can extricate myself from their ads that help me stay afloat or their services that sell and even publish my books. I don’t even get a fancy apartment out of it but if I’m supposed to be doing something about them I don’t know how to do it yet. Sorry, Detroit.

***EXTREME SPOILER SECTION***

Seriously, don’t read this before the movie. I was happy I didn’t hear about any of this shit before seeing the movie, but I want to discuss it with people who have seen it.

Is it just me or is it weird that within a year Steven Yeun is in two excellent, biting satires where he’s involved in a militant movement against a corporation that’s involved in weird genetically modified animals? (The other one is OKJA.) I guess that’s just his niche. I wonder if he’s worried about getting typecast.

Jesus, equisapiens, huh? How ’bout them equisapiens. This is a crazy plot twist that honestly would’ve seemed twice as crazy two years ago but these days, shit, who knows what you’re gonna read about tomorrow. If the Trumps believed in science they’d be making all kinds of crazy animal hybrids with giant dicks.

You gotta go that far for it even to seem like satire these days. But it works because it’s true. Yes, if they could make more money by having mutant slaves, they would be okay with it. And everybody would shrug it off.

There’s that well-worn trope from A FACE IN THE CROWD, where the villain rants about his true beliefs or his evil plan and the heroes record it or broadcast it and the exposure saves the day. See also UHF, BATMAN RETURNS, DIRTY WORK, 16 BLOCKS, etc. For years I wanted to see one where they record the evil politician saying something incriminating, they play it, and nobody cares. Instead of a movie they did it with Trump’s famous grab ’em by the pussy video. So the cliche may be dead.

I love how they do it here: he’s only able to get a platform by being humiliated in an accidental viral video. Then he has to go on a popular show where they badly beat his face in and completely cover him in actual shit. Only then can he broadcast the devastating video that lets the cat out of the bag about this outrageous abomination against God and Man, and… well, it doesn’t stop jack shit and in fact it helps the company’s stock prices go through the roof. The media helpfully characterizes the shocking existence of human-animal-hybrid-slaves as a technological breakthrough.

I really believe right now they would get away with it. We’re fucked, people. But at least we have SORRY TO BOTHER YOU.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Monday, July 23rd, 2018 at 7:27 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “Sorry To Bother You”

  1. Not reading any more of this shit, because I am going out and seeing this ASAP. Thanks for the recommendation Vern.

  2. The movie looks great and has a top-notch cast, but unfortunately I feel like the satire falls apart a bit with the HUGE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS HUGE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS HUGE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS HUGE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS HUGE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS HUGE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS unexpected turn things take in the final act. Everything about WorryFree and Cassius’s temptations to sell out his friends and ideals for a shot at the good life are spot-on excellent satire, but the thing that Armie Hammer reveals to him and the subsequent role it plays in the resolution just don’t really have any real-world analogue that I can think of. I’m not saying they WOULDN’T do that, I’m just saying they AREN’T, and aren’t really doing anything similar; if anything, people are likely to be replaced by nonsentient AI algorithms and robot automation, not super-strong REDACTED. They’ll be able to crush unions with robots, not slave labor. Given how vital its keen eye for ripped-from-the-headlines satire is to the rest of the movie, it’s a real letdown that the film’s climax hinges upon something that is purely fantasy and not really all that close to home (unless you want to imagine the REDACTED as analogues for sentient AI, which sort of works but the story still doesn’t quite line up). I do 100% love how unabashedly crazy it gets, and those costumes are fucking great, but the whole power of the story is in its evocation of the current zietgiest, so a sudden turn towards pure fantasy at the end kinda deflates it (and in alienating me that way, it also gave me time to reflect that while the movie has its moments, its mostly just not all that funny, and a lot of its characters, especially Yuen and Thompson, are kinda poorly handled).

    It’s still totally worth a watch, I just wish it had stuck the landing better, because it’s a real live wire when its going at full power.

    HUGE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS HUGE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS HUGE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS HUGE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS HUGE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS HUGE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

  3. I’ve been listening to The Coup a lot since the fun left-wing law podcast Mic Dicta used them as a theme a year ago. It’s good.

  4. We saw this in a packed house at the Grand Lake in Oakland, which is probably the scientifically optimized venue for this movie. Smart, crazy, deeply weird. I second the Michael Gondry resonances.

    If there is such a thing as “midnight movies” or “cult movies” anymore, this is one. I heard someone called this “this generation’s Repo Man.” 100%.

  5. Blunt force satire and double-barrel quirk are hard sells for me these days, but it’s nice to see an indie movie that gives a shit about having a unique tone and visual style and isn’t solely concerned with looking “professional” (whatever that means) so the director can get a job directing for Showtime or whatever. My only real concern is that the same-titled album was one of my favorites of the past decade or so and if this is a bug success then it means The Coup won’t be making any more like them any time soon.

    I mean, listen to this shit. It sounds like an Oingo Boingo/Ice Cube collabo. There’s nothing else like it. I guess if the same can be said about the movie, I’ll be okay with Boots switching mediums when hip-hop still needs him.

    I was also never a major Coup fan back in the day, but now I feel like I missed out. Here’s my favorite classic joint of theirs. I’m a sucker for story rap, especially one with such a great character arc and a dope bass line.

  6. It’s great that a weird sensibility film like this can actually breakthrough. I’m attuned to the weird sensibility of it, but I found the pacing a bit too sluggish for the middle hour. Still, I’m staying positive, so here’s the three jokes I liked most:

    1) The garage door opening into the street mid-sex.
    2) The VIP Room experience.
    3) The yuppie crowd in the “***** Shit” rap scene – the most cutting bit of satire in the movie.

  7. I’m bad at remembering movies unless I’ve had the privilege of rewatching them on video. So even though I just saw this a week or two ago I already forgot about the “****** Shit” gag. But that was a good one. Thank you Palermo for reminding me.

  8. Hey, you know, one other weird thing that’s been in my head since watching this… what do we all think of the movie’s never-questioned assumption that rich people will buy anything if you sound like… David Cross or Patton Oswalt? They claim the secret is for the “white voice” to sound like the salesman “doesn’t have a care in the world,” which is not something I associate with either voice, even though that’s obviously what they’re trying to impart. But even if you buy that David Cross’s dulcet tones conveys utterly carefree nirvana… does that claim even make sense? Do the most successful salesmen sound like they’re being force-fed prozac in a 1950’s sitcom? Seems to me they tend to be charismatic, extroverted, focused and confident, and much of their success is about reading other people rather than selling their own identity. I know Riley had a little personal experience with cold-calling rich people (soliciting for a charity, though, not sales) but his read of this artform just feels all wrong to me. Possibly a communist is not the best person to deconstruct the nuances of salesmanship, but it’s just one other way in which I feel like the satire in this one feels a little bit off-target at times. There’s a lot of the satire that feels right-on (Vern is correct that the public reaction to WorryFree feels right-on) but the whole “white voice” conceit is so fundamental to the film that not completely buying it threw me off a little.

  9. “I should lay off trying to predict the future, but it seems to me people will look back on this period and see a thriving movement of black creativity that includes this movie, GET OUT, Atlanta, Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” video, Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer album and videos, Kendrick Lamar, Ryan Coogler, maybe Ava Duvernay and Barry Jenkins and some others.”

    Preach it brother. To all you futurists: I salute ya!

  10. YESSSS to a shout-out to Latyrx! Their first single was the gateway drug into hip-hop for many of my friends — the ones who had to listen to me play it over and over on roadtrips.

    I bumped into Lyrics Born at a frozen yogurt shop in the East Bay and he was hella friendly. I had to bite my tongue to keep from fanboying ad nauseam. “Suckers steer clear of me like feminists do carshows…”

  11. Jesus, what a weird fuckin movie. I loved parts of it, but I think it dragged a bit at times. The reveal at the 3/4 mark is a bit too on the nose for my tastes. But there were some great satirical jokes. The aforementioned “***** Shit” joke was spot-on and cuts pretty deep. The Heaven’s Gate cult-like FoxConn working conditions. Armie Hammer was great but the real standout was the main actor. He showed a lot in his posture and the desperation in his eyes. Good stuff.

    Parts of this movie reminded me very much of GET OUT — the hapless main character stuck in a fucked up dystopian hell created by white people. My friends disagreed with me but what do they know.

    Majestyk, as an Oingo Boingo fan that track is clearly inspired by the B-52s.

  12. Great write up of a great movie. I really love how unusual and unique this one is. It actually reminded me a bit of early Spike Lee in a good way.

    But what’s up with his girlfriend’s name being my nick name? (Though she does spell it like my hometown rather than my phonetic bastardization of it). Something fishy, or rather something horsey goin on there

  13. Sorry to bother you but how is describing yourself as a communist much different than describing yourself as a nazi? Both were totalitarian, murderous regimes were they not? Or does not being racist excuse genociding even more people than the nazis?

    Look, I don’t think anyone with half a brain would argue that capitalism doesn’t need some retooling and things aren’t out of whack, but it’s laughable to me that someone would seriously think communism is the answer to Donald Trump or whatever.

    Or it would be funny if it wasn’t so terrifying how both the left and the right are becoming more and more extreme in response to each other, like an ideological arms race.

    We can do much better than these toxic 20th century ideas that were already fought out and should stay in the prior century.

  14. I don’t think any self-described communists are in favor of Soviet-style or Maoist totalitarian regimes. The central themes of true communism have some appeal, especially to the downtrodden and historically disenfranchised, but in practice it just doesn’t work, devolving into brutal disctatorships or Animal Farm hypocracies. Unbridled capitalizism isn’t much better. Self-described commies are usually naive idealists, more like Ayn Rand libertarians than Nazis, with the obvious exception that no commies are currently running our government.

  15. Nazism is a specific party that committed atrocities, communism is a political philosophy, so no, they are not the same at all. It has nothing to do with Trump – I’m talking about Boots in the ’90s and early 2000s. I don’t know if he still identifies as a communist, but he still cares about worker’s rights, which is good. Maybe you’re confusing communism with democratic socialism, which is becoming more popular, but I don’t think it’s extremism. To me it seems like just a (possibly misguided?) relabeling of traditional liberal ideals like using the government to help people instead of to pump up corporate profits and blow people into bits.

  16. How can you say they are not the same at all? When I say “communism” I’m of course using it as an umbrella term to refer to specific parties like the Soviet Union and Maoist China, both of which killed more people than the Nazis.

    And I wasn’t really referring to Boots specifically so much the number of people I’ve noticed recently describing themselves these days as Communists in response to Trump.

  17. Well I was talking about Boots in the review and of course he was not using it that way. I have literally not encountered a single person calling themselves a communist in response to Trump. Do you remember any examples?

  18. Griff- “communism” is a political philosophy that entails collective ownership of the means of production. That’s all it really has to mean. It could (and has) taken a broad range of political forms, from the totalitarian (Stalin) to the anarchic (collectivist agrarian communes). It has been so relentlessly disparaged in the United States that we associate it exclusively with grand disaster in the Soviet Union and Maoist China, but if you think about it, it’s not like Capitalism or Democracy has a better record (just ask the native peoples of the Americas or Australia about that). When someone says they’re a Communist, it’s typically because they’re opposed to the exploitative hierarchical class system which Capitalism creates, not because they’re advocating for Soviet-style totalitarianism (which they’ll point out is not “really” Communism, despite using the name).

    Nazism, of course, is a specific political party with a clearly articulated agenda, so that’s a pretty different ballgame.

    Interesting, fascism is also a political philosophy, and like Communism you can imagine it taking a wide variety of forms. Arguably, the Utopian “Federation” in STAR TREK is a species of fascism, though on Earth it tends to be almost exclusively paired with ethno-nationalism (off the top of my head I can think of no exception, even an academic or theoretical one, so I’d say that it’s reasonable, if not exactly fair, that we conflate the two).

    My hot take: people get too hung up with these political philosophies in the first place. They’re worth considering because they help governments articulate their orienting principles, but policy matters more than philosophy. A sensibly managed, effectively governed, compassionately oriented country is always going to be the best place to live, and political philosophy doesn’t have a lot of direct influence on those things. They’re essentially ethical arguments (which is why people like to talk about them) but the business of effective resource management (which is what government, at its most basic level, actually is) is nearly always in the details more than the high-minded rhetoric.

  19. I liked this one. When it hits it’s quite effective. I feel like I should’ve liked it more but the pacing and the ending sections twist didn’t quite land right for me. There’s still moments from that point that work very well though like the rap in the mansion moment. I’d definitely recommend the movie, even if I left the movie feeling like how Vern sounds like he felt—wow, we are fucked.

    I’d agree that the white voice didn’t quite match how it was described, almost but not quite, but perhaps that’s a bit of the point—similar to how stereotypical “black” voices don’t quite work even when they’re done well and that’s sometimes part of he joke, e.g. RDJ in TROPIC THUNDER. It would’ve been funny if they got Tony Robbins to dub the voice though.

  20. ‘When I say “communism” I’m of course using it as an umbrella term to refer to specific parties like the Soviet Union and Maoist China, both of which killed more people than the Nazis.’

    Basically every 20th century regime you’re thinking of adheres to a specific socialist ideology known as “Marxism-Leninism” (based on Lenin’s, and later Stalin’s, attempts to put into practice Marx’s fairly vague ideas about what would come after capitalism), which involves policies like a non-democratic one-party state with highly centralized control of the economy. I saw an old clip with Boots Riley on Bill Maher’s show at https://twitter.com/delmoi/status/1021805288020733953 where he says he wants democratic control over the economy, so I don’t think he’s talking about the Marxist-Leninist version of socialism. Also, the USSR and other such states called themselves socialist but considered “communism” as a future goal they hadn’t achieved yet (basically it was supposed to be a condition of such abundance that it would work a bit like Star Trek The Next Generation, where everyone can just order up whatever they want from replicators so there’s no need for money, and no need for a planned economy controlled by a powerful state), and as Boots says in the clip “they never even claimed to get to communism”, so by calling himself a communist he’s probably talking more about his ultimate future ideal rather than whatever kind of system he’d want to see immediately after some kind of socialist revolution. (not all socialists even believe a revolution that takes capitalist property by force would be needed to go from capitalism to socialism–I don’t think Bernie Sanders does, for example–but based on his interview at http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-ol-patt-morrison-boots-riley-sorry-to-bother-20180718-htmlstory.html along with SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS the scene of the equisapiens breaking into the billionaire’s house, I doubt he believes it’s possible to get to socialism just by voting for socialist candidates in elections)

  21. Boots’ WTF interview a few weeks back is pretty illuminating in terms of his commie/socialist background and his dad’s involvement in labor union politics.

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