My favorite films across the board are the ones that encompass all genres, therefore transcending them. This year has had many great films and it’s been difficult for me to definitively say which one is my absolute favorite. Hereditary, Blockers, Infinity War, Black Panther, Death of Stalin, and many others I have yet to see are contenders, but last week I think I found my front-runner for favorite film of 2018 so far. It’s a brilliant film called SORRY TO BOTHER YOU.
I watched the trailer for this film a few months before it came out and immediately knew it was something I had to see. It looked weird and silly just from the trailer, and I am not using these terms in a derogatory fashion. I would say that almost all of my favorite films have a dash of absurdist humor thrown in somewhere. The thing is, the trailer for this film is just the icing on a very complex yet overwhelmingly delicious cake. I have had trouble actually coming to terms with what to say about it, because it’s just so damn amazing.
Seriously, I have not laughed as loud or as much as I have when I saw this film in the theater, and the whole crowd was roaring. The last time I experienced such a phenomenon was when I saw Borat in the theater. At first glance, you may think that these movies have absolutely nothing in common but they actually kinda do. They both bring to light uncomfortable truths through raucous in your face comedy.
The film centers around Oakland native Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield; Selma, Get Out, Atlanta), a super chill but very broke stoner who needs to get a job. We open on him in the office of RegalView, a telemarketing firm in San Fransisco. His friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler; Crashing, BoJack Horseman) also works there, as we find out when Cassius uses his phone number as a false reference on his resume. Despite Cassius’ lying to Mr. Anderson, the manager (Robert Longstreet; Mohawk, The Old Man & The Gun), he gets the job, because according to Anderson, Cassius is “hungry”. After getting the job, we see Cassius in his bedroom with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson; Thor: Ragnarok, WestWorld), that is quickly revealed to be a garage owned by his Uncle Sergio (Terry Crews, my favorite person in the world and also a cast member of beloved TV comedy Brooklyn 99). Cassius finds out that he has to pay Sergio four months back-rent or he will be out of a home, and so will Sergio.
This puts the pressure on Cassius to sell as much as he can through telemarketing since the job is entirely commission-based. He isn’t having the best luck, having almost all of the calls in his first few weeks of work result in hang-ups. Then his co-worker in the next cubicle, Langston (the inimitable Danny Glover; Lethal Weapon, Royal Tenenbaums…but do I really even need to list the films this legend has been in? Come on) tells him a secret. “You gotta use your white voice”, Langston tells Cassius. AND what a white voice it is, dubbed in by the legendary Steve Buscemi. When Langston uses it, it is entirely unrecognizable from his actual voice. Then Cassius tries it, and like magic, his white voice (dubbed in by David Cross of Mr. Show, Arrested Development, and one billion other amazing films and television shows) starts to make him commission. So much commission in fact, that he is able to pay back Sergio all the money he owed him and more. So much so that he gets to move into his own apartment, and most importantly, so much so that the higher-ups in the company are talking about moving him up to the top floor to be a “Power Caller”. To be a “Power Caller” is the Valhalla of RegalView. Few attain the status and get to use the super special elevator.
While Cassius is making bank with his white voice, his co-worker Squeeze (Steven Yeun; The Walking Dead, Okja), along with Detroit who now works there part-time, Salvador, Langston, and a crew of others decide to take steps to unionize RegalView in order to change working conditions. Detroit is especially fond of this cause, seeing as she is a socially conscious performance and fine artist who doesn’t even need the job at RegalView, or to live in a garage, since she is secretly rich. A plan is made at a local bar amongst the crew on how to start the strike. It’s decided that on a day in the very near future, all the calls will stop and no one will go back to work until they are paid a living wage. Cassius is on board, up to and until the day of the strike. When everyone starts chanting, Anderson and the rest of the management team call Cassius into the office. He made it, he’s going to the top floor, and he’s going to be a POWER CALLER.
This is when the film really starts to get insane. As the strike continues, tensions build between Cassius and his co-workers. He doesn’t join them in the strike; he keeps going into work on the top floor for Mr. ________ (I don’t know why Boots Riley made this choice, but this guy literally has an expletive bleep, as well as a pixilation of people’s mouths when they say it, as a surname), a gallant, impeccably dressed black man with a carnival barker moustache, played to wonderful effect by Omari Hardwick (Kick-Ass, Power). On the top floor, it’s white-voice only so naturally, Mr.______ has his own white-as-the-driven-snow vocals dubbed in by Patton Oswalt (King of Queens, Ratatouille, funniest comedian ever…etc). What are they selling on the top floor? It’s hard to say, really, at first.
Throughout the film, there are multiple references to a god-awful company called WorryFree, which attempts to market itself as a wonderful new twist on the work-life balance but what is essentially a work camp where people live in rooms with four bunk beds, work all day, and get fed industrial grade slop. They aren’t paid actual wages, just in room and board. So essentially, it’s modern day slavery. The face of this abomination is the smug, overconfident, and ultimately psychotic Steve Lift (Armie Hammer in one of the best and most hilarious performances of his career). We find out that what’s being sold on the top floor is the WorryFree workforce, so Cassius is a black man using a white voice to sell slaves to people around the world.
Cassius loses Detroit as a girlfriend, but we find out that she isn’t beyond reproach either. At the night of her art opening, she is seen walking around in an evening gown and using a fake English accent (dubbed in by Lily James; Cinderella, Baby Driver). On the same night, Mr.______ invites Cassius to Steve Lift’s home. After being fetishized and asked to rap and all manner of other ridiculous things, Cassius finds out what’s behind WorryFree’s already dubious business practices, and it is NOT GOOD AT ALL.
I know that two pages of plot exposition might seem a little bit over-the-top but I am only scratching the surface here. This film is a priceless piece of social commentary. It’s a pro-union, anti-capitalist, anti-racist mirror to our ultra-flawed society. It shows that even those with the best intentions, whether black or white, are often participating in their own demise without even knowing it. The film is chock-full of hilarious cameos, including Rosario Dawson as the voice of the overly complimentary seductive elevator, and Forest Whitaker as…. someone you definitely won’t recognize.
You may be wondering why this film is being reviewed on a website that usually sticks to horror films. At first glance, you wouldn’t think of this as a horror movie, and it isn’t in a conventional sense. The thing is, this film isn’t necessarily a comedy or a drama or ANYTHING in the conventional sense. It’s an unconventional movie for an incredibly odd time in our country’s history. Also, the last twenty minutes or so of the film kind of ARE a horror movie, but I don’t want to give them away.
Insofar as this being rapper/actor Boots Riley’s debut film, it is possibly the most impressive debut feature I have ever watched. It’s beyond ambitious and there is literally never a dull moment. So many ideas are being expressed simultaneously, yet it’s never confusing or pedantic. It’s a brilliant piece of absurdist satire that puts David Zucker to dirty shame. Every performance is hilarious yet moving, and the music, which is also performed by Riley’s band The Coup, is incredible. Not to mention the production and fashion design which are honestly Oscar-worthy. Boots Riley has a lot to live up to with his next film, but I am sincerely looking forward to it. Go see this movie TODAY!!! You won’t regret it!