Review: Sorry to Bother You (Sundance)

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

Previously reviewed as part of our Sundance 2018 coverage.

PLOT: A young, black telemarketer (Lakeith Stanfield) discovers the secret to success at the soulless company he works for, quickly climbing the company ladder, only to discover the horrifying truth behind what lies at the top.

REVIEW: SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is among the most radical films to hit the Sundance Film Festival this year. A dark satire, it’s a bold debut for director Boots Riley, better known as a rapper, and one that marks him as a unique new voice, even if the film’s deliberate attempts to go off the rails don’t always quite work.

The first hour of this is close to brilliant, with Riley telling an intriguing story that plays almost like the corporate, business-set cousin to GET OUT. Lakeith Stanfield, who’s brilliant on “Atlanta” plays an ambitious telemarketer, who’s so desperate for the gig that he goes through the trouble of faking a more impressive CV. His deception is quickly spotted, only to be told by the hiring manager that his lies actually make him great candidate for them, a hint as to the kind of company he’s going to be working for. Selling encyclopedias, he’s urged by a co-worker (Danny Glover) to adopt a “white voice”, which he does – with Riley hilariously overdubbing him with David Cross (with another black colleague being voiced by Patton Oswalt).

His white voice makes him a hot commodity at the firm, getting him kicked upstairs, where he attracts the attention of the trillionaire CEO (Armie Hammer) of “Worry Free”, a company where the unemployed are encouraged to sell themselves into slave labor, with the “upside” being all their needs will be taken care of, from shelter to food, with this reality depicted as them living in cramped, hellish dormitories people, in the reality of this movie, think aren’t that bad.

Riley has fun with the ultra-capitalist culture, and the notion of assimilation, with Stanfield robbed of his identity, right down to his own voice, by choosing easy money. This half of the movie works beautifully, with his plight easy to invest in thanks to the razor-sharp script and directing, while Stanfield is ultra-charismatic in the lead. The supporting cast is good too, with Tessa Thompson his outspoken activist lover, and Steven Yeun as a friend who tries to keep his conscience awake, not that he has much luck.

Yet, when SORRY TO BOTHER YOU dips into sci-fi horror in the last act, it all goes a little haywire. Hammer’s having a grand-old-time as the CEO, introduced while doing the biggest line of cocaine in screen history, but the more down-to-earth satire works better than when it goes into more grand guignol territory. That said, one has to respect Riley’s ambition, as he’s pretty much the only director bold enough to rate comparisons to Lindsay Anderson (the film plays out very much like a homage to O, LUCKY MAN) and even if this one doesn’t quite all-the-way work, I bet his next one just might. Riley’s one to keep an eye on and while this is an imperfect film, it’s a damn fascinating one.


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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.