In Boots Riley’s absurdist dark comedy Sorry to Bother You we see a world deteriorating. Things are not simply bad, they are getting worse.
The film has been called “this year’s Get Out”, with the two described as “social thrillers” – a term coined by Get Out director Jordan Peele. Both films are grotesque caricatures that derive humour and horror from social issues that are all too real.
But while Get Out is a horror story about racism, the caustic humour in Sorry to Bother You targets many of the intersecting kinds of oppression that people face. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) has to deal with his girlfriend’s racist family, whereas Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is embattled by an entire system, of which racism is one aspect.
Making capitalism the villain feels quite on the nose in 2018. The film begins with a broke Cassius attempting to trick and then beg his way into a commission based telemarketing job. The depiction of the desperate desire for a job you know you’ll hate invites comparison with the screw-your-arsehole-boss cult-classic Office Space. Made in 1999 when that system appeared to be in better health, the villain has different characteristics.
Here, the enemy is soul-sapping ennui of corporate life; having to fill in a different set of boring forms, prison-like office booths, occasional weekend shifts. Such complaints give Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), an IT worker who writes code to avert the millennium bug, an eternal “case of the Mondays”. He tries to hide from his boss and undertakes hypnotherapy, before hatching a hare-brained scheme to hack the company account and make enough money never to have to work again. But if he really has to, more fulfilling employment will surely come along.
Cassius should be so lucky. Fast forward two decades and we’re in post-crash capitalism with its looming foreclosures and financial desperation. To survive in telemarketing he must not only “Stick To The Script” but mitigate his blackness by “Code Switching” – Cassius is encouraged by his old-timer Langston (Danny Glover) to adopt a “white voice” to make more sales. This does the trick and, as his career improves, he must choose between either moral bankruptcy or financial hardship. He achieves promotion to become an elite “Power Caller”, selling diabolical products to heinous corporate clients.
Evil can’t be reduced to one bad guy or corporation: each character must navigate a system that invades every aspect of their lives. As his co-workers organise to improve their conditions, he breaks a picket in order to continue his high paid job and pay off his landlord and uncle. Cassius’ partner Detroit (Tessa Thompson) finds his strike-breaking reprehensible. A member of radical group “The Left-Eye”, even she makes a living selling art to rich people. By confronting the viewer with the stark choices faced living under capitalism, the film stays relatable even as the world Cassius inhabits becomes a grotesque, hallucinogenic techno-dystopia.
In Office Space Peter Gibbons and his pals don’t need to confront reality. When they decide to steal from the company in order to get one over on their employer, it’s a farce. You know it’ll go hilariously wrong and it’s funny because nobody would ever be that bravely stupid.
Resistance to the system is individualised and has no horizons beyond the workplace itself. The trouble starts when Gibbons steps into the office, and ends as soon as he gets to go fishing with his neighbour. Great fun though it is; it is ultimately just escapist misadventure – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for grownups. Their day-dreaming about a life without work (playing “if I had a million dollars”) seems a less realistic prospect than the most evil plans of Sorry to Bother You’s Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), CEO of WorryFree and a parody of the most maniacal Silicon Valley Burning Man boss.
Cassius ultimately discovers that the only way out of the straitjacket he finds himself in is to take collective action with those with whom he has the most in common. He and his comrades aren’t satisfied with a less harsh life, though that in itself is a radical demand. They want a better world, and they want revenge.
While Sorry to Bother You is off-the-wall and hilariously bizarre, its message is firmly grounded in the recognisable injustice of a system whose decadence is seeing it teetering on the edge of collapse. That makes it all the funnier and more cathartic.