How Do You Describe Boots Riley's Indescribable Sorry to Bother You?

We Rounded Up the Most Admirable Attempts from the Country's Finest Critics

By Sam Eichner ·
Annapurna Pictures

Sorry to Bother You, directed by first-timer Boots Riley, of the hip-hop group, the Coup, not only defies attempts to describe it, but makes a mockery of anyone who would dare try.

Taking place in a just-barely-bizarro Oakland, it stars Lakeith Stanfield as the down-and-out Cassius “Cash” Green, a RegalView telemarketer who learns to use his “white voice”—dubbed in the soundtrack with jarring discord by David Cross—in order to become one of the top salesmen in the company. He eventually rises to the ranks of Power Caller, selling powerful clients on the cheap labor from WorryFree, a company that essentially packages slavery as late-stage capitalist comfort: its “employees” sign a lifetime contract, wherein they work for 14 hours a day in a factory and sleep in barracks-like accommodations, eight to a room. When Cash visits the mansion of WorryFree’s CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, who plays him like an evil Winklevoss triplet with a bad coke habit), he discovers a terrifyingly shocking new business endeavor, which is too good to spoil here, and decides to join his friends and girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), in their unionized revolt against RegalView.

Riley’s film has drawn comparisons to everyone and everything from Nickelodeon to Kurt Vonnegut. When a group of rich white people at Steve Lift’s mansion start a “rap” chant for Cash, it’s hard not to think of Atlanta, another project (with Stanfield) that reflects the occasionally surreal, oft-horrifying experience of being black in America; when the janky furniture in Cash’s garage literally metamorphoses into the kind of minimalist Crate & Barrel furnishings emblematic of the white bourgeoisie, it’s hard not to think of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (and Detroit, with her orange-and-silver hair, handcrafted jewelry and radical performance art, as a manic pixie dream girl in the mold of Kate Winslet’s Clementine, if Clementine joined ANTIFA and worshipped Kendrick Lamar). In the off-kilter mundaneness of the RegalView workplace, there are shades of Mike Judge’s Office Space, while the eerie “white voices” feel as if they crawled out of the sunken place in Get Out. And you could keep going, on and on and on, ad infinitum. Part of the fun of a film as exhaustively imaginative, out-there and unclassifiable as Sorry to Bother You is teasing out the influences and likenesses and recombining them until it all makes a weird sort of sense—at least to you.

Personally, I would describe the film as an unproduced David Foster Wallace workplace comedy, posthumously discovered and rewritten by Donald Glover, directed by Spike Jonze. But what do I know? Herewith, we’ve rounded up the best descriptions of Sorry to Bother You from the country’s finest critics.

Feel free to steal your favorite and drop it into a casual conversation with friends after seeing the movie.

From Emily Yoshida, for Vulture: "A pro-union, anti-corporate, race-conscious, Silicon Valley side-eyeing tale of one man’s journey through the late-capitalist nightmare of an 'alternate present' version of Oakland..." 

From A.O. Scott, for The New York Times: "It’s fair to say that “Sorry to Bother You” sticks to its own script, but crucial to add that the script in question flips, swerves, meanders and all but explodes in a flurry of ideas and inspirations. If Mike Judge’s 'Office Space' and Robert Downey Sr.’s 'Putney Swope' hooked up after a night of bingeing on hallucinogens, Marxist theory and the novels of Paul Beatty and Colson Whitehead, the offspring might look something like this.

If you wanted to propose an alternative genealogy — an episode of 'The Twilight Zone' directed by Melvin Van Peebles and Ken Loach; a blaxploitation Polish sci-fi allegory from the ’70s; a puppet show produced by Kendrick Lamar and Charlie Kaufman — I wouldn’t be mad."

From Barry Hertz, for Globe and Mail: There isn’t one perfect skeleton key to be found on Sorry to Bother You (the album) that unlocks Sorry to Bother You (the film), but the lyrics to Your Parents’ Cocaine come close: 'Your daddy’s got a business plan / Which made wars in Afghanistan / It bought your house in Bangkok and / Your parents’ cocaine.' That verse might sound like an unnecessarily moody, deep-in-the-dark Neil Young riff on the total absurdity of war, maaaaan, but as delivered by Justin Sane (of Black Flag fame) and set against an infectious, kazoo-backed beat, it captures everything Sorry to Bother You (both the film and album) is about: sharp social critique disguised by a wry, candy-coated packaging."

From Ty Burr, for The Boston Globe: "Any echoes you might pick up of 'The Sellout' (2015), Paul Beatty’s outrageous satirical novel of black American life in the 21st century, are probably not coincidental. The Boots Riley approach to filmmaking seems to partake of equal parts Beatty, Kurt Vonnegut, the Firesign Theatre, the 1969 comedy “Putney Swope,” early Brian De Palma, peak Melvin Van Peebles, the kitchen sink, and a whole lot of Mothership Connection."

From Cary Darling, for The Houston Chronicle: "[Riley's] ambition is what you might get if you crossed Peele with 'Atlanta' creator Donald Glover and added a whisper of Spike Jonze ('Her') and Michel Gondry ('Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind')"

From Justin Chang, for The LA Times: "While it is recognizably an extension of the director’s activism, it is also a playful and restlessly imaginative work of art, one that gathers up an eclectic range of influences — blaxploitation, Motown, Bob Dylan, Nickelodeon, Spike Lee’s rage, Spike Jonze’s whimsy — and pushes them rambunctiously forward, into a genre that might be described as intersectional screwball science fiction."

From Richard Brody, for The New Yorker: "The closest tonal approximation for 'Sorry to Bother You' is one of the late films of Jean Renoir, 'Picnic in the Grass,' in which science fiction and political satire meet theatrical exaggeration and romantic lyricism."

From Eric Kohn, for IndieWire: "The directorial debut of hip-hop artist Boots Riley reaches into the stratosphere of creative inspiration with utterly bonkers results that are nonetheless crystal clear in their intentions: 'Putney Swope' by way of 'Dear White People,' Riley’s wacky odyssey fires a zillion different wacky ideas at once, and more often than not, hits its targets."

Sam Eichner

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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