Our hero, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), or “Cash,” lives in his uncle’s garage in Oakland and is struggling to find a foothold in a society dominated by a conglomerate called Worry Free Living. Employees of Worry Free dress in jumpsuits, get free room and board (in shoebox apartments), and spend their whole lives doing menial work. Cash and his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), an activist-artist, cling to their independence but struggle to stay afloat, so Cash gets a job at a telemarketing firm called RegalView to try and make ends meet.
The film’s first big metatextual gag is the “white voice” that Cash adopts to rise through the ranks at his job; when he speaks on the phone to customers, the comedian David Cross’s voice comes out of his mouth, in a perverse, particularly surreal illustration of code-switching. Riley turns the dull art of cold-calling into a literal intrusion, visualizing Cash’s desk smashing through the ceilings of his customers, and turning his phone conversations into face-to-face confrontations. These little set pieces crackle with DIY wit as they paint a searingly silly vision of living paycheck to paycheck in America.
I appreciated the blunt-force satire of Sorry to Bother You’s first half, as Cash and his “white voice” rise through the ranks at RegalView and he gets promoted to the company’s luxury-branded top floor, where the cold calls target major conglomerates rather than people at home eating dinner. Cash’s central conflict is navigating the eternal trade-off between one’s success and one’s moral code—he lives extravagantly, but it’s a reward for fundamentally unfulfilling, potentially evil work. As his coworkers at RegalView try to unionize, Cash is caught between old friendships and loyalties to the bosses.
That’s when things go from trenchant to deeply weird. Cash begins working with RegalView’s top client, Worry Free, and draws the attention of its comically evil CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), whose plans for the future of the American workforce horrify in entirely unexpected ways. At this point, Riley is throwing concepts at the audience so thick and fast that he doesn’t really give himself time to reckon with his bigger ideas. Cash, played with laconic charm by Stanfield, is a relatable hero, but Detroit is ill-served by Riley’s script, existing primarily to explain the film’s heavier themes and scold her boyfriend for his ethical lapses.
Sorry to Bother You’s deliberate lack of panache is sometimes a huge strength, particularly in its most chilling set piece, in which Cash is asked to rap in front of Steve and his coterie of rich hangers-on. But when the film introduces its wildest plot twist, it lands flatly; your mileage may vary, but the broad metaphor Riley introduces about the fate of Worry Free’s employees is too thuddingly obvious and impersonal for me, shocking and ghastly for the sake of it. Still, the twist is also an admirable risk. Especially as the newest crop of homogenous summer blockbusters arrives, it’s hard not to appreciate a movie taking such bold narrative swings. As an unsubtle work for an unsubtle era, Sorry to Bother You deserves to be one of the season’s cult hits.