Seeing a first-time director tackle a genuine challenge project is always a thrill. So Boots Riley’s maiden effort SORRY TO BOTHER YOU — which he also wrote — has been eagerly anticipated for months. Add in the excellent eye-catching trailer and the anticipation spiked even further.

However, satire is no easy genre. Miss in one direction, you end up preachy. Go too far in another, perhaps you end up more like one of those ______ MOVIE parodies. And there is the always looming specter that you might just end up plain unfunny.

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU: Cassius
Lakeith Stanfield tries to process things under the hot lights in a scene from SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. (Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

The Idea Behind SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) wants to improve his life a bit. He has an excellent performance artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and a good friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) but, otherwise, things are tough. He’s fourth months behind on his rent, rent that pays for living in a garage in his uncle’s house.

Worse, his uncle (Terry Crews) is behind on his mortgage for the house itself. Green has a car, also thanks to his Uncle, but barely has the money to buy gas for the usually smoking lemon. Finally, while he just got a job, it’s for a telemarketing company and he’s off to a rough start.

However, after an older co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) reveals to him the power of the “white voice,” things turn around. Cassius, it seems, has an uncanny white voice (provided by David Cross) and the people on the other end love it. Before long, he has ascended — literally and figuratively — to power caller status.

There he is mostly asked to call corporations to get them to use Worry Free to provide their labor. Worry Free — owned and operated by Elon Musk meets Bikram Choudhury Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) — is a kind of in-house workgroup that lives, eats, sleeps, and so on right onsite making them wildly efficient. To put it another way, as several characters including Green’s sales idol Mr. [Beep] (Omari Hardwick) does, Worry Free offers slaves. And that’s when things get very weird.

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU: Cassius and Langston
Lakeith Stanfield and Danny Glover watch the clock in SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. (Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

The Writing

Satire lives and dies on how much the world we are seeing feels like our own. Too different, too abstract, and you are likely to end up with a bunch of viewers who didn’t even realize satire was what you were going for. Too close, too concrete, and it feels more like drama. Riley threads that needle, with one exception, throughout.

Just to get it out of the way, the one exception is a game show that feels more like something you’d have seen in IDIOCRACY. It is almost redeemed by Langford’s love of it; he even has a shirt! When the game show, however, returns in a key role, it comes right back to not working.

Critiquing beyond the balance, not every joke works. Some are a little obvious or grind the movie, briefly, to a halt. To give an example, there is a confession of an STI shouted over a bullhorn gag that just died ugly.

Riley does strong work on characters. It would be easy to stack the deck against the decisions Cassius makes by either making him a coward or making everyone else naïve or terrible. The script, however, avoids that. You can understand everyone’s position but also see the flaws in them and their reasoning. That’s no easy task in satire.

Lastly, the screenplay never loses sight of the small things while it swings for the fences. For instance, when Lift’s horrible plan is revealed. Instead of reacting with disgust, the media and the establishment recontextualize and sanitize what he is doing. Society adapts so quickly that the obviously horrible violation is reframed as a great business decision literally overnight. There are several other examples that I cite below.

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Getting The Little Things Right

For instance, take the code-switching. Yes, the white guy voice is the splashy example of this, but there are several others. Detroit interacts with the patrons at her art show with a British voice (provided by Lily James, although, I confess the dubbing is so good on Thompson I didn’t realize that during the movie). Squeeze (Steven Yeun) begins his interactions with Green in a far different tone than he eventually strikes. He starts more aggressive, a bit tougher because he assumes that’s the right way to approach Green, a black man. However, as he gets to know that Green does not embody the stereotype he expected, he adjusts.

Even Hammer’s Lift code switches in reaction to those around him. There’s a scene — one that should hit white liberals who like Hip-Hop, including me, especially hard — where Lift more or less forces Cassius to perform for he and his white guests’ enjoyment. As the audience eats up Green literally just chanting “N—- Shit” over and over Lift monitors the reactions of his guests before bopping his head. Even the rich white guy is modulating his behavior to best meld with the masses.

There is also the twist which I’ll dance around as best I can. One, the specific change Lift is proposing has a direct connection with the way African Americans were discussed during the slavery era. And, sadly, still often are as openly as during sporting events on national television. Second, there is the obsession with the genitalia of the new workers that, again, reflects the already existing obsession with black men’s sexual prowess. Third, the video exalting this change depicts entirely white workers while certain cues make it clear that black workers are actually the ones being focused on and affected.

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Casting The Leads Of SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

The most impressive thing Lakeith Stanfield does on-screen here is play ambivalence. He really lives in the skin of a person who has ideals and morals — but for the first time can see a way out of the grind he’s been living in. How he can rationalize it and have those rationalizations be real, if not exactly right. Playing conflicted in a film can be difficult but you don’t know that watching Stanfield.

I also love this bit of physical work he does where he never learns to drink champagne throughout the film. He gets plenty of opportunities and every time he either spills in, swallows it wrong and coughs, or slurps it. I don’t know if it was in the script or just an adlib but it is a great bit of business.

On the page, I suspect Thompson’s Detroit might have felt a little flat. However, Thompson brings her to life. Serious, understanding but with clear lines that she will not cross, she takes what could have been a flat daffy character of conscience and gives her depth.

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU: Detroit
Tessa Thompson rocks her newest art piece in a scene from SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. (Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

Casting the Rest of the SORRY TO BOTHER YOU Call Sheet

Pretty much everyone is uniformly great.

Yeun’s union expert is smart but also obviously motivated by his libido and neither side undermines the other — except during that terrible joke mentioned above. Fowler as friend turned enemy overwork also a bit of nuance to him. Plus the angry compliment off he engages in with Green is a gift of acting and tone.

While Hardwick only uses his real voice once in the movie — his white voice is courtesy of Patton Oswalt — his presence is undeniable. The fact that he carries off such a bizarre look in a way that never derails the movie is impressive enough all on its own. Add to that the way he plays Mr. [Beep] as part tempter, part only ally and you get a standout performance. I just wish they didn’t do the joke about his name as it never goes anywhere.

Hammer is also exemplary as Lift. He’s exactly the kind of technocrat that can talk a good game but is so far away from people that his entire perception of reality is warped. The way Hammer plays him a consummate snake oil salesman who is way high on his own supply is an excellent choice. He’s not a monstrous capitalist like Gordon Gecko. He’s something scarier, a true believer.

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU: Cassius and Steve
Lakeith Stanfield recognizes, even with a head wound, Armie Hammer is bad news. (Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

Filming

As somewhat given away in the trailers, Riley uses this literal wall-smashing technique to put Cassius in the room with the people he is calling. It is a visually interesting way to highlight both the invasive nature of a telemarketer and the discomfort the telemarketer feels in turn.

Scene transitions in general Riley does an excellent job with. Montages, close-ups to pullbacks to reveal new locations or circumstances, travelling between point A and B in a step, and so on. They’re invented, well executed, and enhance both storytelling and pacing.

Despite it being satire it also turns out Riley can build tension and deliver a scare pretty well too. Green’s discovery that the new approach to workers is not just abstract discussion is a frightening scene from beginning to reveal, for example. Nothing in FIRST PURGE made me jump like that did.

What I most appreciate is that style never overwhelmed storytelling. That can be a hard knob to modulate just right on a first effort, but Riley does it here.

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That’s A Wrap

Modern works of effective satire are rare. I cited IDIOCRACY above for a reason. It’s bad satire that too often gets pointed to as good because, in part, I think, we are so hungry for good satire.

This isn’t just good satire, this is excellent satire. Save a couple of jokes that I just didn’t like — which may say as much about my humor preferences as anything — and a bit of costuming that at first is incredibly effective but becomes sort of silly after the third glimpse there is nothing I could point to to change.

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU take big cuts and connects. It is satirical about work, workers, and corporations in a way that feels all too real. It is also smart about the pressure society puts on people to be “productive,” the financial crisis that hasn’t really ended for so many people, and how, for black people especially, choosing between making a living and ideals can be an incredibly fraught path.

Simply put, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU demands your attention and it damn well earns it too.

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