It was when the half-man, half-horse’s penis showed up that I thought to myself, well, that’s a new one.
There’s something that’s irrationally annoying about most movies that are described as “crazy.” (I realize it’s in the title of this post. Alas.) First of all, they are usually bad. Sure, they play well at midnight screenings at film festivals in front of rowdy, half-drunk crowds. But, most of the time, this is all pomp and circumstance to disguise the fact that the movie is maybe unwatchable in normal circumstances. These movies often don’t have a focused narrative; they just exist to be “crazy.” Think of a lot of strobe lights and Nic Cage screaming. Then the movie gets out and everyone who was in attendance starts tweeting things like, “The strobe light, Nic Cage screaming movie is really crazy.” When I read tweets like this, it’s usually a signal to me that I will never see this movie.
Now, Sorry to Bother You — Boots Riley’s directorial debut, which premiered at Sundance on Saturday evening — is a crazy movie. (And, yes, if I were reading this, I probably wouldn’t want to see it based on that sentence.) But what makes this kind of crazy movie stand out is that, even though there are moments of true absurdity (I already mentioned the half-man, half-horse penis), the narrative is never lost. This is a movie with a point of view that maintains the rationale of that point of view throughout. Sorry to Bother You doesn’t exist just to be a “crazy movie”; it succeeds despite its “craziness.”
Lakeith Stanfield plays Cassius Green, a man living in his uncle’s (played by Terry Crews) garage, already four months late on rent. Cassius is offered a job as a telemarketer, trying to sell nonsense over the phone to people who don’t need it. After taking some advice from a veteran co-worker (Danny Glover), Cassius discovers his “white voice” (voiced by David Cross). And once Cassius has his “white voice,” he becomes extremely good at selling nonsense over the phone.
While his colleagues go on strike demanding a livable wage, Cassius starts moving up the ranks and catches the eye of the company’s CEO, Steve Lift (played by a scenery-chewing Armie Hammer), who is almost definitely evil from the first time we meet him. Cassius’ sign-twirling, member of a secret resistance underground girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), tries to warn Cassius that the company he works for is evil, but Cassius kind of likes having money and the feeling of finally being good at something. His rationale is, yes, he’s now selling slave labor over the phone, but people have to make a living somehow.
Sorry to Bother You is a movie about corporate greed, but it’s also a movie where people are turned into half-men, half-horses because they make better workers. And a selling point of this transformation is, yes, also a bigger penis. It’s a movie where Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift calmly explains to Cassius that, yes, on the outside looking in, it all looks bad, but he did it to make money. In Steve Lift’s mind, this is a perfectly reasonable excuse to genetically alter human beings against their will. In his mind, he’s not “evil” because there’s a rationale behind it all. And this really isn’t even fiction (well, the half-horse, half-man part is… for now), we pretty much live in that world right now as smiling politicians screw over the masses because they can make more money. And when Steve Lift’s atrocities are exposed publicly, the stock of his company goes through the roof because investors realize, yes, he will have better labor. Again, no matter how bizarre Sorry to Bother You becomes (and it goes in some very strange directions), it doesn’t entirely lose its focus.