Wake up, sheeple! Corporations are one step away from relying on slave labor, turning us all into half-equine worker drones with extreme productivity and massive horse cocks.
That’s just one of the (many) cautionary tales of Sorry to Bother You, a wild acid trip of a movie that manages to be a harrowing indictment of capitalism and a rally cry for the #Resistance, but also a raucous fever dream in which Lakeith Stanfield is the leading man we’ve all been waiting for, a coked-out Armie Hammer shows up in a sarong, and telemarketing becomes America’s most culturally relevant industry.
It’s a mess of a movie, but a gonzo journey in which every frame is bold, colorful, loud, and utterly alive. Wrapping up a rather staid Sundance Film Festival, the premiere from rapper cum writer-director Boots Riley is the movie that made everyone who saw it feel, for all its flaws, actually excited, like they had seen something original, fresh, and special for the first time.
It’s certainly in the running for the craziest film to have played in Park City. (The gratuitous blood-soaked bacchanal Assassination Nation may give it a run for its money.) But it’s Annapurna Pictures, the distributor that picked up Sorry to Bother You in a deal brokered Thursday, that, with rare candor for a professional press release, said it best: “We fucking love this movie.”
Set in a present day alternate-universe version of Oakland, Sorry to Bother You introduces us to Cassius (Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield, a revelation). Down on his luck and living in a dilapidated garage that keeps spontaneously opening when he’s having sex with his punk-artist girlfriend Detroit (Creed’s Tessa Thompson, a rainbow-curled, truth-to-power dream), he tries to con his way into a thankless job as a telemarketer—only to learn that he needn’t put in that much effort. Got a pulse? You’re hired.
Upon receiving the secret to the job’s success from an elder coworker played by Danny Glover—“Use your white voice!”—he becomes a telemarketing phenom, scoring a massive promotion that rocket-launches him straight up the corporate ladder. Lingering in the jet fumes, however, are his entry-level coworkers, barely making a living wage. Fed up, they organize a protest spearheaded by Detroit and a professional unionizer played by The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun. (Celebrate this film for many reasons, but especially its diversity.)
This creates obvious tension between Cassius and his friends. Not only does he have to scab picket lines in order to get to his sweet new executive-floor digs, but he’s no longer selling sets of encyclopedias. No, he’s working on behalf of Worry Free, a controversial company in which employees sign a lifelong working contract in exchange for the peace of mind of free room and board. Or, as Cassius clarifies in one of the film’s biggest laugh lines, “Are you telling me you’re selling slave labor to companies over the phone?!”
Provocative things are explored here, sometimes in nakedly obvious ways and other times to rather sly effect. Cassius’ race is a major factor in every conversation he has, especially when he meets Armie Hammer’s Worry Free CEO Steven Lift, who hosts an orgy and snorts a line of cocaine the length of a football field, unabashedly plain-spoken about his corporate greed once he gets to the end zone.
As Cassius grapples with how much complicity is worth the zeroes on his paycheck, especially as his friends battle police brutality and racial erasure on the picket lines, he becomes an avatar for the ways people compromise their identities to conform and succeed. Is it better to resign to the reality of the world and maximize the situation to your greatest benefit? Or take a stand for a better future?
And we haven’t even gotten to the horse cocks yet.
We won’t get into how or why the half-human, half-horses come into play, or just what kind of a unique experience to see a equus penis flopping on the big screen. But that this happens so matter-of-factly illustrates how the third act kind of just puts you in a wheelbarrow and sends you over the Niagara.
Riley approaches his directorial debut at times like a music video and occasionally even like an experiment in camp. Everything is light-hearted, with hints of comic surrealism, which has the effect of seducing you into the more audaciously bizarre finishing notes of the allegory.
There are warning shots about corporate America, and how we’ve not only become willing, but maybe even eager, to offer up our dignity and agency to overlords who have reduced our humanity to dollar signs and numbers. Running parallel is commentary about our humiliation culture, the value of virality in an internet age, sex as power, and the role of race, gender, and class in the #Resistance. All while being shamelessly outrageous throughout.
There are many different threads here, in all kinds of bright colors, that almost weave together to form a cohesive, even powerful movie. As it is, the patterns clash and the finished product is certainly frayed. But that might even be its appeal, maybe even giving it greater worth. There’s something stylish and purposeful about its messiness.
We saw about 20 movies at this year’s Sundance festival. There were a handful that we genuinely adored, and only two that we downright loathed. (Both were race dramas directed by white men, go figure.) There were two films that are going to be bonafide think-piece content farms for the next year but, to echo what Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan tweeted earlier this week, there were no “you-gotta-drop-everything movies, scenes, moments, lines... the conversations are confused, searching, unsatisfied.”
While we generally endorse the sentiment, we’d argue that Sorry to Bother You, which by festival’s end became its hottest ticket, is bonkers, ambitious, and, god, fun enough to generate enough you-gotta-see-this-crazy-movie bro buzz to make it a bit of an indie event.
Any film that utilizes internet crush Lakeith Stanfield this effectively—his stoner humor gives way to horror-film paranoia in an effortless arc—deserves a billboard; any director who drafts Armie Hammer into the Year of the Caftan is a national hero.
It’s become clear that forecasting any Oscar potential from this year’s Sundance lineup may be a fruitless endeavor. So give it up for the astutely ridiculous workplace satire that, when it comes to cinematic cajones, is nothing if not a horse of a different color.