Weird means something different to everyone, and that makes it a pretty unreliable thing to base a movie on. A great combination of comedy, discomfort and total WTF energy is difficult to create on demand, and even harder to achieve in a way that appeals to a huge audience.
Sorry to Bother You does the hat trick; is amazingly funny, sometimes in ways that have us squirming a bit, and isn’t afraid to make left turns into an utterly unpredictable territory. It’s got an impeccable cast, with Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, and Steven Yeun to guide us through the story’s increasingly strange turns – and we promise that you have no idea where the end of this movie is going to lead. Imagine the strange alt-future world of a movie like Repo Man combined with Office Space and Stanfield’s show Atlanta, and you might be kind of prepared.
Sorry to Bother You is from writer/director Boots Riley, and stars Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out) as Cash, a near-homeless young guy desperate for work in a pretty broken-down, near-dystopian version of America. He’s living in his uncle’s garage, driving a rattletrap car, and will do anything to make a buck – including working for a low-rent telemarketing firm.
At first, Cash has no success trying to sell books over the phone, but then a helpful co-worked played by Danny Glover gives him some advice: “use your white voice.” Cash tries it out, and instead of Lakeith Stanfield’s voice, we hear David Cross speaking his lines. The trick works and is hilarious to watch. Soon Cash is flush with, well, cash. His life changes almost immediately.
The film shows us Cash’s efforts at work by visualizing his desk actually dropping right into the homes of people he’s calling. That’s weird enough, but Sorry to Bother You commits to creating a bizarre environment in every way.
The background action is consistently showing us a world seemingly about to fall apart. It’s in the office machines run rampant in the telemarketing office, the super-dodgy ex-cons who run that business, and the bizarre structure of the company, which has an elevator reserved for “power callers,” super-successful telemarketers who work in an airy upstairs office that looks like a fine hotel.
Then there’s the most popular TV show in the country, called I Got the Sh*t Kicked Out of Me!, in which people get beat up for the chance to be on TV. And there’s a super-bizarre new business in town, Worry Free, which gives people room and board and a job – they just need to sign a lifetime contract with the company. And what kind of work do the Worry Free “employees” do anyway?
The film creates this compellingly unusual world where just enough things are tweaked – in ways that seem strangely possible given where our world is now – to be weird and unsettling, but also vividly funny. It helps that Armie Hammer plays a business tycoon/self help guru named Steve Lift, who is somehow connected to all the action. And Tessa Thompson keeps it weird with massive slogan earrings and connections to a guerrilla street art group.
But Boots Riley never pushes the movie too far from a reality we know as our own. These characters have to pay the rent like everyone else, and they deal with watching friends make bad choices, and with the bizarre phenomenon of viral fame that comes from appearing on a show like I Got the Sh*t Kicked Out of Me!. That all pushes the movie from pure black comedy to a really weird zone where the most unusual twists, which we haven’t even hinted at here, feel right at home.
Sorry to Bother You opens on July 6.