It was always going to be difficult adjusting our expectations for a film with as much early ballyhoo as Sorry To Bother You. UK viewers have had to wait an extra six months to see Boots Riley’s much-vaunted debut, an extra six months to build expectations sky-high, so it’s unlikely that Sorry To Bother You, with its precise, distinct visual lexicon, surrealist flights of fancy and decidedly oddball sense of humour, will meet the mark for everyone. And it’s a shame, because in embracing Sorry To Bother You – perceived warts and all – you’re embracing one of – if not – the most pleasingly idiosyncratic, potent and prickly films of the year.
Knowing as little as possible will pay off in spades so we’ll keep this one brief. Jobbing twentysomething Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (Get Out’s Lakeith Stanfield) lives a hand-to-mouth existence with his girlfriend, social justice firebrand and part-time sign spinner Detroit (played by Tessa Thompson, who’s almost upstaged by her many sensational earrings). When Cash finagles his way into a lowly telemarketing job he learns an incredible technique that sets the world he knows into a tailspin.
Plainly put, Sorry To Bother You is a bold, bonkers rejoinder to the corner capitalism is increasingly hemming individuality into that ploughs its own highly unique furrow. There’s a specificity in the characters that sticks in your mind – they each feel parachuted in from some of SNL’s weirder sketches but it all gels because Riley’s vision is so strong. He clearly took a lot of successful cues from Michel Gondry (there’s even a thinly disguised reference to the director) because the cartoonish kookiness only bolsters the commentary, never hindering.
There’s an initial lightness about Sorry To Bother You that’s hard not to succumb to. Director Riley front-loads a lot of terrific jokes and he has an endearing penchant for going for what another filmmaker would regard as low-hanging gags, like someone typing in an infeasibly long passcode or one character’s name, Diana DeBauchery, not being pronounced the way you would expect. He weans you on some tack-sharp but pleasingly broad satire before embracing the darker edges of his contemporary morality tale, and you can almost feel Riley crossing his fingers audiences will roll with it.
A satire this sharp and this off-the-wall needs an actor capable enough to ground the entire thing, and there’s no one better for the job than Lakeith Stanfield. In the past few years, Stanfield has quickly cemented his standing as an exceptionally versatile character actor and he’s never better here. Cash comes and goes as a protagonist, his decisions never quite aligning with what we would hope from him and Stanfield nails that underlying insecurity and desperation. Admittedly, it’s hard to go into detail without revealing too much but Cash’s journey is unconventional to say the least and Stanfield more than acquits himself.
Though he’s less of a major player, Armie Hammer is impeccably cast as the palatable figurehead of increasingly pernicious modern capitalism. Hammer has a nice guy appeal that he exploits here terrifically, his slippery CEO Steve Lift framing himself as the kind of congenial everyman that Mark Zuckerberg tries and fails to be.
The remaining supporting cast members are all excellent – Tessa Thompson remains cinematic Red Bull, capable of enlivening every scene she graces, while comedy vets Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, and Terry Crews make do nicely with limited screen time. Boots Riley has assembled a fierce cast but, given how he’s seldom off-screen, it’s Stanfield’s show at the end of the day.
If there’s criticism to be leveled against Sorry To Bother You, it’s that the climax doesn’t quite pack the necessary oomph you’d expect. As a result, the sting to the satire feels defused and the whole thing kind of putters to an inelegant denouement, which is unfortunate but everything up to that point was so strong. Fortunately, if you squint, it’s easy to overlook Sorry To Bother You’s minor shortcoming (and there really is only one) because this is otherwise an exceptionally skilled, thoughtful and caustic debut.
Sorry To Bother You is out in UK cinemas on 7 December