Greg, sorry to bother you, but it’s time to review our next movie.
It’s no bother to review a film that is both serious and absurdist. Let’s review:
Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is applying for a job as a telemarketer at RegalView. He lies on his application but is hired anyway. He is told by his boss to “stick to the script’, and he advised by a coworker to use his “white voice” to make sales. His girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) loves him for being so different, so true to himself, but soon Cassius drives her away by becoming successful with his white voice. He even betrays his fellow workers’ efforts to go on strike for higher wages.
“Cash” is soon promoted the the “Power Seller” penthouse suite where he continues to use his “white voice” to sell subscriptions to the WorryFree franchise. WorryFree offers workers free food and lodging in exchange for time worked. This cut-rate approach to labor makes it easy for RegalView to build weapons and sell them on the open market. The deeper he gets into RegalView the further he’s driven from his girlfriend and coworkers.
Greg, Sorry to Bother You is a quirky, genius movie about a hero who slides into moral decay yet ultimately achieves redemption. Our hero Cash is a good man but like many heroes he succumbs to greedy impulses, betraying his friends and his principles. For most of the film I was convinced that Cash was doomed to the role of an antihero, but a jarring encounter with a horse-human hybrid created by his evil boss at RegalView awakens him to his moral decline. Cash ultimately does the right thing, despite it costing him (literally) one hundred million dollars.
One of the many elements of this film that I liked was its realistic portrayal of the social influence processes that give rise to evil. (And this may be the only ounce of reality in an otherwise surreal film.) Cash is pressured by his colleagues and his girlfriend to unionize their way to better salaries, while simultaneously he is pressured by his higher-ups to follow the money regardless of how dirty the deed. His friend Squeeze (Steven Yeun) implores him, “Don’t be the leaf that floats down the current; be the stone that splits the stream.” Cash allows himself to be the leaf but like all good heroes he transforms into the stone.
Sorry to Bother You was sold to us as a comedy – it’s a dark comedy to be sure. But is in fact more a social commentary. We’re drawn in by the absurdist images of Cash literally “dropping in” on his prospects when he calls them. And ultimately the film combines symbolism with grotesque imagery when he encounters the “horsemen” that will be the workhorses behind RegalView.
Sorry to Bother You is actually an allegorical tale. The problem I’m having is whether it’s presenting a view of the past, the present, or the future. If you look at Cash’s progression, he very much looks like the “house negro” of the plantations of the antebellum south. He learns to talk the right way to fit in with those in power. And when he succeeds, he’s risen to the top. Then he’s asked to sell the “religion” of those in power to the workers – or slaves. Ultimately, he’s asked to become a spy and work from within to control the slaves. Finally, Cash turns on his owners and revolts against the system. This looks a lot like the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831.
But then there’s this undercurrent of the unionization of the workers at RegalView. This is a socialist subplot that feels more modern and harkens back the the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917.
And yet it all feels vaguely familiar as though set in modern times. With companies like Walmart, Google, Facebook, and Amazon employing workers at both low-end and high-end jobs giving them either just enough to subsist on – or totally absorbing the workers into a corporate structure that takes over their lives.
Is Sorry to Bother You an analysis of the past or a foreshadowing of the future? Only writer/director Boots Riley may know.
Sorry to Bother You is a surreal examination of our darkest motives combined with a depiction of our ability to confront and overcome those motives. This movie hooked me with its realistic demonstrations of social power and influence at its worst — and at its best. Our hero Cash must overcome these sinister forces and do the right thing, and I was relieved to see him rise to the occasion rather than spiral downward (which we’ve seen in other movies such as Nightcrawler). Sorry to Bother You also offers some biting commentary about race, social hierarchies, and economic classism. This movie is smart and not-so-subtle in its exposure of our modern caste system. The film held my rapt attention, entertained me, and deserves consideration for film awards this Oscar season. I give it 4 Reels out of 5.
As mentioned, Cash is a hero for showing such great adaptability. He first showcases this adaptability by sliding so effortlessly into RegalView’s dark world, and thankfully this same adaptability helps him recover his moral high ground by permitting him to rise above those nefarious forces. Cash’s transformation from light to dark, and then back to light again, is a classic journey of redemption, a heroic arc that we discuss in our 2015 book, Reel Heroes & Villains. I award our hero Cash 4 Hero points out of 5.
Regarding this film’s archetypes, we do encounter the archetype of the abusive and exploitative boss, the abused worker, a type of master and slave environment, and a love triangle among Cash, Detroit, and Squeeze. Most of all, there is the perennial archetype of good versus evil, and succumbing to temptations with evil, a tale as old as the story of the Garden of Eden in the Bible. Overall, these archetypes earn 3 Arcs out of 5.
Sorry to Bother You is an exceptional film. Even its title has more than one meaning. It’s the phrase that Cash utters when he interrupts people’s lives with cold calls. But it’s also an apology to the audience: “What you see may bother you.” I rarely dole out perfect scores, but when a film cannot be improved, I give it full marks. Despite the fact that the allegory is a bit muddied, I score Sorry to Bother You 5 Reels out of 5.
Cash is an exemplary hero. He has high goals and high ideals. He strays from those ideals to make some “cash.” Ultimately he realizes that his ideals are worth more than the money and returns to his friends and coworkers. I give Cash 4 out of 5 Heroes.
Archetypes abound in this story. There’s the IDEALIST ARTIST in Cash’s girlfriend, the MENTOR in Danny Glover’s character, the SOCIAL REFORMER in Cash’s workmates. I give them 4 out of 5 Arcs.