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Sorry not sorry – ‘Sorry to Bother You’

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It’s rare for movies to really surprise us anymore. Oh, there are the plot twists and turns that will sometimes catch us off guard. We anticipate a bad movie and get a good one or vice versa, that’s unexpected. But for a movie to legitimately SURPRISE us, to be something far more than we ever could have prepared for, well … that’s an uncommon treat.

“Sorry to Bother You” – written and directed by hip-hop activist Boots Riley – wasn’t really on my radar before a few weeks ago. What little I initially gleaned was that it was a sort of workplace comedy with something to say about race and class. But then the murmurs started. People whose opinions I trusted – critics and friends alike – were talking about this film. Talking about it in hushed and reverent tones while still keeping everything very close to the vest. My interest piqued, I went to see it for myself.

Approximately 105 minutes later, I understood. That is, I understood why these people I considered smart and knowledgeable had such a big reaction to this movie. The movie itself? Yeah, I’m still unpacking that. It’s smart and weird, a philosophical car crash of a modern-day fable filled with thoughtful ideas and dark jokes and magical realism – the kind of movie that dares you to categorize it because it knows you can’t.

The setting is a skewed alternate-present Oakland, where the world’s most popular TV show is called “I Got the S—t Kicked Out of Me” and its largest employer is an organization called WorryFree whose business model involves lifetime contracts and other questionable morality. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield, TV’s “Atlanta”) is a down-on-his-luck guy living in a garage owned by his Uncle Sergio (Terry Crews, TV’s “Deadpool 2”). His girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson, “Annihilation”) is an artist-activist with big ideas and bigger dreams.

Cassius lands a job as a telemarketer, struggling initially. But it all turns around for him when his coworker Langston (Danny Glover, “Proud Mary”) advises him to adopt what Langston calls his “white voice” (a voice you will almost certainly recognize it when the time comes). This change in his voice turns Cassius into a rising star at the company, causing some tension amongst his fellow workers – namely his friends Salvador (Jermaine Fowler, TV’s “Superior Donuts”) and Squeeze (Steven Yeun, “Okja”) – and leading him down the path toward elevated status as a “power caller,” one of the telemarketing elite.

However, that path also leads into a cracked mirror version of this already-cracked universe, allowing the film to become darkly absurd and thought-provoking in ways that I couldn’t properly articulate even if I wanted to. Continuing a synopsis from this point does everyone a disservice – myself, the movie and, most importantly, the audience.

“Sorry to Bother You” is a movie utterly unlike anything I’ve seen in a theater. The fact that it even WAS in a mainstream movie theater is frankly baffling to me. I struggle to parse how a film like this one even gets made at all, let alone with the sort of budget and star power this one clearly had.

We’ll start with Boots Riley, the unlikely auteur. This is Riley’s first feature film as either a director OR a writer … and in some places, it shows. His inexperience with the medium is apparent in a number of spots, visually and in terms of storytelling. But that inexperience also means that he’s not bound by conventions of filmmaking, freeing him to make huge, bizarre choices that somehow work far more often than they don’t. The aesthetic is jagged, but compelling. And the story – holy s—t the story. The less I say, the better. Just be prepared to be completely unprepared.

It’s a dynamite cast, too. Stanfield is marvelous, bringing a slouching, slumped-over quietude to the screen, a self-aware disaffection over which he exerts complete control. Whether he’s laconic or lunatic, he always feels grounded in that reality, no matter how over-the-top weird things get (and they get WEIRD). Thompson is a huge talent, one who is only scratching the surface of what she can do. This is a great role for her – nuanced yet broad. She makes big choices feel well-managed. Fowler and Yeun add some wonderful depth, while Glover and Crews make the most of their screen time to display their respective gifts.

(And while I won’t give away too many of the surprises, it’s no spoiler to tell you that Armie Hammer is in this movie and he is OUTSTANDING. I’m not going to tell you who he is or what he does, but rest assured that his performance is note-perfect and razor-sharp and just plain phenomenal.)

“Sorry to Bother You” is not the movie you think it is. It’s the kind of strange challenge that will polarize audiences. This is not a “meh” movie – you will love it or you will hate it. There’s no middle ground. I’m still thinking about it and probably will be for some time to come.

If you see it, I can’t promise you won’t be sorry … but I certainly wasn’t.

[5 out of 5]

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