The Top Tier of Telemarketers
“Pictures were made to entertain. If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” That quote was originally attributed to film mogul Samuel Goldwyn.* It proves that, ever since the dawn of the motion picture business, studio heads usually didn’t give a damn about making an artistic statement. They are, as a great American philosopher once said, all about the benjamins.
Sometimes that’s cool! Sometimes we just want pure entertainment for a couple of hours, a way to escape from a chaotic and hostile world. We don’t want to think of movies as Art, because we think Art is work. I think the layperson puts cinematic art into one of two categories. They are:
- Films like The Fountainhead or Schindler’s List that make great sweeping statements, but usually aren’t a bundle of laughs.
- Films like Into the Void or The Seventh Seal that make great sweeping statements, but can feel too challenging or borderline incomprehensible.
It can seem like those are pretty sucky choices, right? Either you’ll exit the film needing antidepressants, or you’ll feel dumb for not “getting” the movie on the first viewing. I get it, but remember that all movies are art.** They’re an expression of a point a view or a statement from the filmmakers. Something like Event Horizon might be low art, but it’s art all the same. The best case scenario, to my mind, is when a film successfully threads the needle and makes a movie that’s simultaneously entertaining and has something on its mind.
Black Panther is a good example of this. It’s about the dangers of colonialism, Afrofuturism, and the conundrum about the usage of power. It’s also about a dude running around in an indestructible cat suit. An even better example is Sorry to Bother You, a comedy of blazing originality and simmering anger.
In the not-too distant future, we meet Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young black man living in Oakland. The world is not Cash’s oyster, it’s not even a Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast. He’s flat broke. His uncle Sergio (Terry Crews) lets him stay in the garage. At least his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a local performance artist, believes in him.
Cash lucks out, landing a job at RegalView. His job is telemarketing, cold-calling strangers to convince them to buy encyclopedia sets. As you might imagine, the job sucks and he’s not so wonderful at it. Things change because of a conversation with his co-worker Langston (Danny Glover). There’s a secret to success. Langston tells Cash to use his “white voice.” Not a pinched, nasal impression, but a totally different register.
What the hell, Cash thinks, and he uses his “white voice” (voice of David Cross) on a call. He’s immediately successful, making sale after sale to the delight of his managers. He’s so successful that he’s soon promoted to a Power Caller. Instead of working at a miserable cubicle, he takes a golden elevator to the top floor. Offices are comfortable and spacious, and Cash is paid a shocking amount of money. All he has to do, according to his new supervisor Mr. ____ (whose name is constantly bleeped in dialogue), is sell…well…not encyclopedias. Cash also needs to speak constantly in his “white voice,” but Mr. ____ (Omari Hardwick) has his own “white voice” (voice of Patton Oswalt) and must do the same.
Sound weird yet? I haven’t even gotten into Squeeze (Steven Yuen), Cash’s work friend and a labor agitator. Nor have I gotten into Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the CEO of RegalView and a firearms and cocaine enthusiast. I also haven’t discussed WorryFree, a company trying to put a sunny and corporate spin on slavery, and I haven’t touched on “I Got The Sh*t Kicked Out of Me,” the nation’s most popular TV show. Believe me when I tell you that those aren’t even the weirdest parts.
At this point, I wouldn’t blame you if you were cautiously backing away and muttering, “No way in hell am I seeing something like that.” While nothing good ever came of someone saying, “You have to trust me on this,” guys, you have to trust me on this. Sorry to Bother You isn’t weird for weirdness’ sake. Instead, it’s a film that’s astonishingly confident in what it wants to say and how it wants to say it.
This is director Boots Riley’s first film. Prior to this, he was the frontman of hip-hop group The Coup. I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot, lately, but this is a highly impressive debut film. Right out of the gate, Riley has a unique command of the film’s visuals. When Cash makes a phone call, we see his desk literally crash down into the homes of the people he’s calling. As he makes more money, we see his apartment transforming and upgrading around him. Most comedies tend to be visually flat, but nobody on Earth would ever say that about this film. There’s a fun nod to French director Michel Gondry with a bizarre corporate commercial filmed in claymation.
Riley also wrote the screenplay, and it’s smart and totally unafraid to take chances. On its face, he’s giving us a surreal reflection of our own world. Riley is so fearless that in the last 45 or so minutes of the film, he has the film make a sharp turn into something very, very different. It will be too much for some people, and that’s a pity. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll see Riley is examining numerous strands of social commentary. It’s a blistering indictment of capitalism and racism, and Cash’s story is that of a guy who needs to decide between being a success and a decent person.
The cast is strong, very strong. Everyone is solid here, from Armie Hammer’s unhinged CEO to Tessa Thompson’s socially conscious and possibly insane performance artist. But it’s Lakeith Stanfield who absolutely crushes it. I’m coming to him late, only having seen him in Get Out and Selma. He’s amazing here, playing a guy who’s had so much bad luck for so long that he just wants to make a little money and make his mark in the world, and who can begrudge him that?
Usually at this point in the summer movie season, we’ve been mostly treated to fluff. Action flicks, superhero movies, kids films, and maybe a gross-out comedy or two. Summer is not the time you’d expect to encounter a work of art that’s smart, challenging, and funny as hell. Sorry to Bother You is all that, and it’s one of the best films of the year. Do not, under any circumstances, miss this movie.
*Only problem is, he may not have actually said it. Director Frank Capra may have really uttered this quote, and if that’s the case, there’s some top-shelf irony going on.
**Yes, even something like Transformers. I think even terrible movies are art, and just because it’s art, it doesn’t mean it’s good.