With so many of us well-boiled frogs now, the only way to demonstrate how crazily evil our world has become is to take the metaphors and make them concrete. That’s what Boots Riley has done with his blunt satire Sorry To Bother You.
In this alternative reality which isn’t that alternative, America has continued the flagellation and in some cases self-flagellation of ordinary people – their favourite TV programme is now “Get Kicked To Shit” where contestants are beaten up on camera then dumped in a vat of excrement.
And information that in a previous age would destroy a company when it is leaked now only serves to increase its value.
The big business success story is the sinister WorryFree. Workers and their families give their whole lives to the company, dressing in identical blue and yellow, sleeping in bunk beds and always smiling – it’s a conveyor belt existence on an actual conveyor belt.
A brutal commentary on capitalism, racism and class and how they intersect, Sorry To Bother You isn’t subtle. It is funny and shocking. And if you’re a shit-hot telemarketer don’t assume this is the moment your sector finally takes centre stage in movieland, as it’s not really about that.
Lakeith Stanfield is Cassius Green, living in his uncle’s garage with his performance artist girlfriend Detroit (a wonderful Tessa Thompson), broke and desperate for a job.
His interview for RegalView Telemarketing is a hoot, and he certainly shows initiative, taking along giant awards that he’s had made to back up his claims of business greatness.
The key to working at Regalview is STTS, or Stick To The Script, which Boots Riley does not do. It wasn’t easy stopping myself coming out with a loud “WTF!” during the packed screening, but I did my best (I know what those cinephiles are like when it comes to talking during films).
Soon Cassius is working in a tiny booth in a room packed with tiny booths, with a squeezy orange light on a stick next to him which lights up whenever he makes a sale. It takes a while to glow. First he endures several days of indifferent responses to his “sorry to bother you” calls, where we see him literally in the rooms of the people on the phone, whether they’re in their kitchen or on the loo.
His colleague Langston (Danny Glover) is the one who helps him turn the tide, when he suggests Cassius use his “white voice”, a vocal encapsulation of privilege, confidence and expectation. After a couple of squeaky attempts – “not Will Smith white!” he’s told – he perfects it, and soon he’s racing through his calls, closing them as he goes, the recipients more receptive to his patter. (His and Langston’s white voices are provided by David Cross and Patton Oswalt respectively.)
RegalView survives on endless pep talks from overly keen executives, including Diana who reminded me of a female and slightly more intelligent David Brent, regurgitating nonsense about their goals that make no sense outside of the confines of the building.
But there are rumblings of discontent, and soon Squeeze (Steven Yeun) is organising a strike, a “Phones Down”, to force the company to allow them to unionise.
The very best telemarketers are promoted to Power Callers; an elite who sit on a different floor, selling different products, and very well remunerated. It’s not long before Cassius is hitting that orange glow stick so often he’s sent to the upper floors. They don’t even have to use the staircase, instead they glide upwards in a beautiful 1930s-style lift with a rather saucy line in recorded messages.
Newly promoted Cassius tries to support his friends and continue to work as a Power Caller. One of RegalView’s most substantial clients is WorryFree, run by sarong-wearing Steve Lift (a hilarious, urbane and terrifying Armie Hammer). Lift takes a condescending shine to Cassius (watch out for his grinning assumption at a party that Cassius must be able to rap, forcing a demonstration out of him by getting his white hangers-on to shout for a performance).
Meanwhile Cassius’s relationship with Detroit takes a battering, despite their shiny new apartment, as she sees him selling out.
But then Cassius discovers something so shocking about WorryFree his chances of ever being worry-free disappear. It’s a shocking realisation about the system, and finally fires up something in him.
Political statements are everywhere in Sorry To Bother You though the best-delivered, and possibly most likely to get through, are the ones on Detroit’s massive earrings. Literally and figuratively heavy, one pair shows a couple of prisoners in electric chairs.
I had a couple of minor quibbles. The pacing is slightly off and the movie feels overlong. Once the real shocks occur, it’s hard to take the story anywhere else (though to be fair so unexpected are those developments I’d probably not have noticed much else happening).
Stanfield is superb as Cassius moves from head-down conventionality to freedom fighter. Riley’s parallel reality is terrifying but not that much worse than our current reality, as the horsemen of the capitalist apocalypse appear. (That title is presumably also an ironic attempt at politely encouraging those less effected to sit up and listen.)
I’ve seen three in-your-face metaphorical satires in the last couple of weeks: Nicolas Cage’s brutal, fantasy land-set revenge thriller Mandy, Assassination Nation, where teenage girls are blamed for behaving just as society has told them they should act and are then pursued by self-righteously murderous neighbours, and now this. It shows how easily we become used to incidents and developments that would previously be seen as outrageous, that we need these brutal and extreme mirrors shoved in our face to make us see the madness around us.
Note: I wouldn’t say there’s a post credits scene but don’t canter out of the cinema when the title card appears at the end, as immediately afterwards there’s a final-final scene.