I learned a very long time ago that, when it comes to movies, it’s the little ones from the filmmaker’s heart I find most interesting and worthwhile. This seems ever truer in an era of endless, empty sequels and mind-numbing blockbusters with no more depth than an amusement park ride. Nothing wrong with amusement park rides, they can be fun, but they’re rarely memorable, let alone creative.
Riley has described the film as “an absurdist dark comedy with aspects of magical realism and science fiction inspired by the world of telemarketing,” and I think that says it pretty well. On the other hand, it barely scratches the surface of what a weird little gem the movie is.
For instance, it doesn’t get into the horsepeople, and neither will I (because spoilers and it’s where the movie takes its biggest left turn). I would even recommend not reading the Wikipedia plot synopsis. It’s better to just let the film unfold for you. Here I’ll try to avoid as many plot points as possible. (Still, you might want to stop reading now and go watch the movie. It’s currently available on Netflix.)
The cast contains a number of well-known names, although some appear in voice only. Stanfield stars as Cassius “Cash” Green (get it?), out-of-work and living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). The uncle (a fairly small role) is played by Terry Crews.
As the story begins, Cash is hired for a telemarketing position — selling encyclopedias (invoking all the old jokes about traveling encyclopedia salesmen). It goes very badly at first. Then a co-worker, Langston (Danny Glover), explains to Cash that he needs to use his “white voice”.
Which is where the story, which has been merely quirky and a little weird, starts to get seriously weird. The white voices are actual dubbed in voices of white people. David Cross is Cash’s white voice, Lily James is Detroit’s, Patton Oswalt is Mr. _______’s white voice. And, yeah, Mr. _______, but that’s getting ahead of things.
I’ll note that the characters find the white voice as weird as the viewer likely does. Cash’s friends react to it as a surprising oddity. With surrealism or absurdism, one choice a storyteller must make is how aware of the weirdness the characters are. Do they react to the strangeness or accept it as normal?
For example, on Cash’s first day as a telemarketer, when he hasn’t yet learned about using his white voice, we see behind him, through a window into the copier room, three people working on a copier that’s flinging lots and lots of paper into the air. Each time we return to that shot, there’s more paper flying. This is never explained, referred to, or reacted to, by anyone. It’s just a fun thing in the background.
This is a movie where you want to pay a lot of attention to the background. It’s filled with funny bits. For instance, Cash drives by a liquor store with a big painted sign reading, “If you lived here, you’d be at work already!” (Reversing the real estate brag about being home already.) Also pay attention to Tessa Thompson’s earrings and tee-shirts.
Another cleverness I liked. When Cash makes a telemarketing call, he and his desk drop through the floor into the home of who he’s calling. It’s treated as virtual, so neither Cash nor who he’s calling react to the visuals, but we get to see the other end of telemarketing, the people who are interrupted in some aspect of their lives by the call.
Once Cash starts using his white voice, he becomes wildly successful, a Power Caller, the best in the group. It allows him to move out of his uncle’s garage and buy a nice new car.
It results in his promotion (literally) upstairs to the elite Power Callers group, a whole new ballgame. They have their own elevator (the regular telemarketers have to take the stairs), and it’s equipped with an overly friendly AI (voice by Rosario Dawson). The group is led by Mr. _______ (Omari Hardwick), which is another unexplained weirdness. When his name is spoken, the sound is muted, and the speaker’s lips are blurred so you can’t even lip-read the name.
At this point the story splits into two threads (with a third thread involving Detroit’s art). The main thread continues to follow Cash and what he experiences as a Power Caller. The secondary thread involves the encyclopedia telemarketers who’ve decided they need to unionize. They go on strike, forcing Cash to cross a picket line consisting of former co-workers.
Seriously adding to Cash’s stress in his new position is what it turns out he is supposed to sell. [SPOILER WARNING] All along we’ve seen billboard and TV advertising promoting an organization called WorryFree. They’re offering lifetime employment contracts that include housing, clothing, and food.
It’s literal slave labor. The housing is former prisons, and people are packed in like sardines. The food is essentially prison slop. The clothing, all identical, is pretty much prisoner’s uniforms. Cash’s job is selling their labor to big corporations. He doesn’t much like it, but he likes his success better and goes along with it.
It’s worth noting that Boots Riley is a communist activist, and Sorry to Bother You is, under all the absurd, absolutely a film about class and labor. And about selling out for the comforts of cash (literally the comfort of Cash). It’s subtle and sly, but also just a little subversive.
And, thing is, the story still hasn’t gotten to that big left turn I mentioned, although it’s made several small ones by this point.
I’m reluctant to spoil this, the reveal and what follows is too interesting. Suffice to say, Cash’s success as a Power Caller brings him to the attention of Steve Lift (Arnie Hammer), the CEO of WorryFree. He makes Cash a very uncomfortable offer.
And that’s all I’m going to tell you about that.
I will say that this is something of a film for cinephiles. It had a $3.2 million budget and earned only $18.3 at the box office (making it a successful, but rather unseen, film, which is usually the case with these little gems). Rotten Tomatoes gives it 93% (critics) and 70% (audience), which I think speaks to its appeal to those who really appreciate stories and film.
I say “stories and film” because the writing is one thing, and the filmmaking is another. Riley brings a lot of creativity to both here. It’s his first film, but he seems very conversant with the language of film.
I’m inclined to give this a Wow! rating with the caveat that, as political and social absurdism, it might not be for casual viewing. It’s not a typical comedy. The title is dual purpose being both a common telemarketing opening and also an opening for telling someone something they might not want to hear.
Stay bothered, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.