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Right from the start, Sorry to Bother You takes you to unfamiliar places. It opens on Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), known to his friends as “Cash,” at a job interview, holding a fake employee-of-the-month plaque from his last job and a pawn shop trophy in order to impress his prospective boss. Even weirder? The job he’s so desperate to get is as a telemarketer, well-known to America’s bourgeoisie as the most painful and demeaning of all possible jobs.
To Cash and those who share his socio-economic strife, however, any job is a cause for celebration. Sorry to Bother You bridges the divide between its impoverished protagonist and its indie audience most likely to see it with a sheer joy of filmmaking rarely seen in cinema. Late in the film, a character is shown a pornographic instructional video (don’t ask, you’ll see) directed by Michel “Dongry,” a nod to surrealistic indie filmmaker Michel Gondry. Sorry to Bother You shares his imaginative approach to emotional filmmaking, including a heavy use of practical effects, but he adds a sharp and incisive satirical bent that makes his debut film feel like not just one of the most bonkers movies of the year but also perhaps the most important.
After Cash learns from an elderly colleague (Danny Glover) how to succeed at telemarketing—the trick is to use a “white voice,” so Riley hilariously dubs white comedian David Cross’s voice over Cash’s when he’s on the job—he begins rising up the ranks of his company. Soon, he is on the track to being a “power caller,” which will allow him to make millions for himself while selling weapons to international bad guys. Meanwhile, his colleagues on the ground floor begin organizing a union, and, on the eve of a strike, Cash is deeply torn between his brothers and sisters and the allure of, for the first time in his young life, earning a decent living.
The struggle is real, but the film makes reality easy to forget. Riley dances across many sensitive topics, using every available form of comedy to keep the audience from sinking into a pit of despair. There are cute physical bits, like when the film literally drops him and his desk into people’s living rooms to visually represent his intrusion. There’s absurd verbal humor, including a hostile exchange between Cash and his friend of increasingly aggressive niceties. Oh, and there’s also a significant amount of horsecock.
Things definitely get weird, especially when Cash is summoned to the home of Steve Lift, the CEO of a controversial mega-corporation Cash has been unwittingly selling for. Lift has some, let’s say, unusual ideas about the future of the American workers, and he wants Cash to help him realize his dream, offering him the biggest check yet for what would be the deepest betrayal of his people. All that hangs in the balance is his soul, monitored closely by his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), whose calm and composure speaks to the travails of a black woman who has transcended struggles Cash has not yet even known.
Throughout the politics and pornography, it’s Stanfield’s miraculously steady performance that keeps the film grounded. In his stellar work in Short Term 12, Get Out, and Crown Heights, Stanfield has come to specialize in a certain facial expression: pained, silent, and holding back an ocean of tears. That face comes in handy in Sorry to Bother You, as Cash expresses the struggle of his entire social and racial class in a character that is guarded against assault from all sides but still unable to hide his deep vulnerability. It’s a remarkable performance that grounds the story in emotion without losing its satirical edge. It may also be the face of this moment, not only for people of color, but all of us who are struggling to comprehend a rapidly changing world, seeking balance between the resistance and self-care, and constantly on the verge of tears.
Sorry to Bother You opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Angelika Film Center Mosaic.