Amidst the A-story of Cash’s ascent, Sorry to Bother You is lousy with subplots. The telemarketing company is in business with WorryFree, an organization that provides housing and food for people in exchange for their work in an arrangement that the Supreme Court has held up as ‘not slavery.’ Cash’s uncle considers signing up, as he’s being pressed by the increasing costs of living in Oakland. The staff of the entry-level telemarketers is being organized by Squeeze (Steven Yuen), a charismatic Norma Rae-type and a romantic rival for Cash. Detroit is putting on an art show and is also part of an underground association dedicated to exposing WorryFree. Cash’s rise up the corporate ladder affords him the opportunity to interact with WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (a wholly credible Armie Hammer), which in turn opens up whole new areas of psychopathic wealth for Riley to lacerate. There’s even an F- or G-plot happening on news screens where one of the telemarketers is involved in a blooper while protesting and goes on to be feted and coopted as a social media star.
Riley tackles everything in an absurdist manner, starting with the continuously-amusing white voices and going from there. Magical realism exists next to science run amok. Is that picture of Cash’s dead father actually changing expressions to demonstrate his disapproval of his son, or is it just a manifestation of Cash’s conscience? Is the voice in the elevator to the upper floors actually addressing Cash and praising his virility, or is it his increased confidence buoyed by his substantially expanding income? Riley does eventually put his nickel down on the elevated reality of his film. There’s little room to consider an alternative, grounded possibility to his inventions as the climax approaches and Sorry to Bother You fully commits to its insane premise. The path to the shocking reveal has been well fertilized by the time it arrives, resulting in less of a sharp left turn than the fulfillment of what’s come before.
All the grandiosity and shock of Sorry to Bother You is in service of an anti-capitalist message that eventually takes precedence over all of Riley’s other pet interests. While he no doubt has plenty to say about race, particularly in a standout scene that conforms to my long-held conviction that a large percentage of white people only like rap because it gives them an excuse to say the n-word, the emphasis is placed on economics. Cash is introduced attempting to embellish his resume with accolades, but he gets the job anyway when the ruse falls apart. The company doesn’t need talent, it only needs bodies capable of no more than navigating the prepared script, not unlike the life script sold to people like Cash in which keeping one’s head down and conforming to a pattern crafted by more successful individuals is the only path to happiness and societal contribution. Riley indicts a system that treats human like widgets, a fixed amount of economic output that can be swapped out at will.
Though Sorry to Bother You occasionally takes the form of a skit show in its desire to cover as much as possible, the link between the aforementioned economic theme and Cash’s personal arc is a consistent one. He’s on a classic Faustian ride, trading his values for status and resources. He’ll be presented over and over again with chances to betray the various relationships in his life, grabbing at those opportunities long past the achievement of a base-level of comfort he didn’t have in his uncle’s garage. He has enough money, but what is ‘enough’ next to ‘more?’ Stanfield is well-cast as a man on a journey through strange new territory, an insecure version of his character on Atlanta, who’s seen plenty of strange things himself. Thompson’s Detroit and Yuen’s Squeeze both serve as counterpoints to Cash’s wavering, both ironclad in their resolve. Thompson plays her character as more fiery than Yuen’s organizer, but both exude the cool that comes from someone who knows exactly who they and their enemies are.
It would be silly to call Riley unconfident in his work, as Sorry to Bother You contains big swings that a reticent filmmaker wouldn’t dream of. However, a more focused work would likely have greater impact than the scattershot approach of Sorry to Bother You. His moderately successful and unquestionably memorable film will get Riley another chance to transform his political ethos into bracing satire that, while often blatant, still hurts. Trading a bonesaw for a scalpel is the boost that Sorry to Bother You needed. The job gets done, but it’s going to leave a scar. B