Screenshot: Sorry To Bother You (Annapurna Pictures)
Tim Rogers and Gita Jackson had a chance to see Sorry To Bother You, a movie so creative and wild watching feels like being transported briefly to new but familiar universe. We sat down to dissect every bit of this potent and hilarious movie. Spoilers abound.
Gita Jackson: So, Tim, we both saw Sorry To Bother You, and as I gather you had as good a time as I did. Can you attempt to explain what this movie is actually about, though, cause I’m kind of at a loss.
Tim Rogers: It’s about Havin A Weird Time In Your Life, as far as I could gather!
Jackson: Yeah… pretty much? The movie is about this young black guy, Cassius Green, who gets a job at a telemarketing agency. It’s a shitty job but he needs to pay his uncle back rent or he’ll lose his house. His girlfriend is a serious and I guess successful artist, and eventually he gets better at his job because he learns how to use his “white voice,” which is literally him being overdubbed by David Cross. This is where things started to get weird, and it just doesn’t stop.
Rogers: When I first saw the preview, I screamed at the concept. When I saw the movie, I was pleased that the movie did not have just the one concept that was in the trailer. On the way out of the showing I saw, someone literally said to someone else, “Man, the trailer only covered like the first 10 minutes,” like that was some kind of complaint! Also, it was more like the first 30 minutes, guy. Danny Glover plays a veteran telemarketer who tells Cassius about The White Voice, and I found it especially hilarious because Danny Glover’s White Voice was Steve Buscemi.
Jackson: I knew I recognised that voice from somewhere! Every performance in this movie is a delight. Tessa Thompson was clearly having a wonderful time. I want all her earrings.
Rogers: Yeah, she went wild with the earrings. At first I found her character a little bit too similar to her character in Creed — artist girlfriend who calls out boyfriend on his fakeness — though as the movie turns into a bunch of other stuff that sort of criticism evaporates. She’s really great and should be in like everything.
Jackson: I also really loved Steve Yuen’s character, who isn’t really much of a character other than his organising efforts, but he makes it work. Yes, also this movie is extremely pro-union and anti-rich people.
Rogers: Yeah rich people get pretty verbally beat up in this movie, which is okay because they deserve it.
Jackson: As Cassius gets better and better at telemarketing, his coworkers decide to strike. He wants to participate in the strike, kinda, but he’s also doing so well that he gets promoted. This is where the movie goes truly off the rails, because rich people are out of control.
Rogers: He gets promoted into, like, a different movie! There’s an oceanic tone rift between his telemarketing job and whatever in god’s name it is he ends up doing.
Jackson: On Twitter you mentioned that this movie is like a spiritual successor to all those good Charlie Kaufman flicks, and this is where you begin to see it.
Rogers: I actually went home from seeing Sorry To Bother You and rewatched Being John Malkovich, which also contains an unorthodox application of a weird job skill in a surreal building. There’s even a part in Sorry To Bother You that references the works of Michel Gondry — a little stop-motion animated film thing whose director is credited on-screen as “Michelle Dongry.” At that point, late in the film, I was like, wow, I am so glad people are being influenced by this stuff in the present day.
Jackson: As I was watching this movie I had the thought that it’s like a Wes Anderson film, but very black and good instead of bad. No shade to Wes, but post Royal Tenenbaums he’s just had problems making a non-insufferable movie.
Rogers: Hey, The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of my top five episodes of Looney Tunes.
Jackson: Although a lot of the themes of Sorry To Bother You are about workers’ rights and rich people living in a different universe, this movie is also unabashedly black. It’s set in Oakland, the majority of the characters are black, Tessa Thompson’s character is working on an art exhibit about Africa and worker exploitation, and there’s a great scene near the end where Cassius, who insists he doesn’t rap, is forced to rap to a crowd of rich white people, which has actually happened to me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Rogers: That part where he raps was so hideous. I was really mad at the movie for like 30 seconds, which definitely means it’s brilliant.
Jackson: It is so striking and cringe-y. I loved it.
Rogers: It was definitely the edge of a Charlie Kaufman “matter of fact moment,” though yes, definitely Very Black. I loved it as well! Ah, man. Those rich people. Man, that scene!!
Jackson: I’ll try to get there quick. So, now Cassius Green is a Power Caller, where The Callers Are Ballers. Holy shit, we forgot to talk about Worry Free! There’s so much in this movie. Worry Free is this tech startup that has workers sign lifetime work contracts to live in a bunker where they assemble goods for cheap. They’re not paid — it’s slave labour.
Rogers: Worry Free! They wear yellow skullcaps and blue overalls, so they look like Minions, which was a hilarious cheap joke. As you know, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area — Oakland, specifically — for seven years. I sat through a LOT of startup pitches as part of my work as a consultant. Those pitches evolved from year to year. One of them, once, was literally for something that was exactly like Worry Free, except it was for “giving homeless people a second chance.” Director Boots Riley very smartly turned this sort of sick thinking into a canvas for intelligent jokes, though as the film unfolded I was aware that he definitely had done all of his homework about the actual reality of this bizarre world.
Jackson: What really blew my mind about this movie is that as I was watching it, nothing about the culture hit a wrong note for me. Even the really outlandish stuff I could picture a craven Silicon Valley robber baron actually doing.
Rogers: Ah, man, Armie Hammer was great! I just wanna take a moment to say that I stone-cold admire how that guy has gone from “lol wasn’t he in that Lone Ranger movie” to “I love that guy” in the space of like six months.
Jackson: So, Cassius has now become a rich high powered telemarketer, and he’s basically selling different corporations on using Worry Free to assemble their goods. He’s a slave trader. On top of that, by being a Power Caller, he’s also crossing the picket line every day on the way to work, and his striking coworkers are beat up by a private paramilitary organisation in order to let them through. His girlfriend leaves him, and he attends a party hosted by the Worry Free exec, played by Armie Hammer. This is where he’s forced to rap, after he was cajoled by Hammer. He can’t rap for shit, but he wins over the crowd by just saying “Nigga shit! Nigga shit! Nigga nigga nigga shit!” It was such a dark, hilarious joke. I mean, that’s all these rich white people want him for.
Rogers: And he gets hit in the head with a thrown can of coke on his way into work, which turns him into a YouTube meme-celebrity, and also requires his character to wear a bloody bandage for the rest of the film — a visual representation of his moral crimes.
Jackson: We also didn’t mention that the top show in the nation is called I Got The Shit Beat Out Of Me. It’s just a show that people go on to get the shit beat out of them.
Rogers: I love the terrible TV show. Remember when Idiocracy came out, and nobody went to see it because the studio made sure it barely existed, though you had like one criminally cynical friend who insisted, “Dude, you should see this movie because it’s about the future, and like in the future people can order handjobs at Starbucks which is totally the direction we’re headed, dude.” Well, the TV show in Sorry To Bother You is like a much better-faith vision of Idiocracy. Like, it really is only just barely beyond reality. I can see it.
Jackson: Someone else I talked to described Sorry To Bother You as the movie Idiocracy wished it were. Idiocracy spends 90 minutes blaming the problems of the poor on poor people and not the corporations sucking them dry.
Rogers: What it has that Idiocracy doesn’t have is a lot of shrilly implausible ridiculousness to offset the discomfort of the plausible stuff. Idiocracy is just uncomfortably implausible ridiculousness. The ridiculous stuff in Sorry To Bother You is pretty ridiculous. And then it got weird and twisted in a way I was not expecting. I would have been okay with the plot resolving with its available tools, though it went and added a bunch more. I was freakin’ out.
Jackson: In the end, Cassius Green snorts what he believes is coke with Armie Hammer, and then looks for the bathroom. Instead of a bathroom, he finds a holding cell for half-horse, half-human abominations. Armie Hammer is turning humans into horses so they can work harder. And then he calmly explains to Cassius his plan, with a cheery stop motion video proposal, so he “wouldn’t think he was being irrational.” The serenity with which Hammer explains his plot, like it’s a totally reasonable thing to do, is amazing to me. Because from the perspective of a capitalist, it is! In order to maximise his profits, this is a reasonable thing to do.
Rogers: It’s a great example of a super-on-the-nose metaphor executed in a way that is both visually interesting on film and mechanically interesting to the plot. By the time you get to the “We’re Making Teenage Mutant Ninja Horses btw” the film has slowly raised your disbelief a couple inches at a time and you’re just like, “Whoa, how did I get all the way up here?”
Jackson: You share in Cassius’ shock, but also totally accept this as a plausible thing to happen in this universe.
Rogers: Yeah, it’s a “Wow, and also of course.” (“Of c’horse.”)
Jackson: Cassius goes on to tell his girlfriend about the Horse Man thing, and finds out that one of them left a video message to her using his phone. So he takes that clip to I Got The Shit Beat Out Of Me and shows the world only to discover… the world doesn’t really care.
Rogers: There’s no such thing as bad publicity!
Jackson: Steve Yuen had a great line here about how when problems are so absurd that they’re beyond solving, people just accept them as the new normal. Definitely sounds like how we ended up in the mess we’re in now.
Rogers: It’s a mundane philosophy expertly applied to a ridiculous situation.
Jackson: Sorry To Bother You does a great job at taking apart the horrors of modern life and revealing them as actually horrible. I mean, I just kept thinking about the Amazon strike during this. Workers in the US aren’t striking, but conditions in those warehouses are so bad that people faint and have to piss in bottles because they can’t take breaks. And we all know that, and still use Amazon. Hell, I use Amazon! But it’s really only a few degrees removed from Worry Free. And it should concern us that we’re willing to accept this.
Rogers: I honestly can’t imagine *not* using Amazon, and I hate — well, first of all I hate having not known about the working conditions until relatively recently. The most important parts of this world are built by people who have never and will never use a public bathroom, and it is ridiculous if this does not make you angry.
Jackson: Back to the movie — Cassius, now a changed man, joins his fellow striking employees to stop the Power Callers from breaking the picket line. To do this, he frees the Horse Men and they just stomp the shit out of the paramilitary group. It warmed my heart. He and his girlfriend get back together, the workers win the fight to unionise, and he keeps a lot of the cool shit he bought while he was rich even though he’s moved back to his uncle’s garage. All is good… except…….. what he snorted wasn’t coke, but the powder that turns you into a Horse Man. Right before the credits roll, we see him outside Armie Hammer’s mansion with a crew of Horse Dudes, ready to beat the shit out of him. Really wish they’d actually shown that part.
Rogers: I love that he doesn’t get away with it.
Jackson: Me too. He doesn’t quite get away scott free because, let’s face it, he’s done a lot of shitty things in this movie and his actions at the end don’t make up for them all. The guy was literally selling slaves.
Rogers: Snitches get stitches. Narc? Die in the dark. Once a scab, always a scab.
Jackson: I had a lot of fun watching Sorry To Bother You. One of the wildest, most inventive movies I’ve seen in years. Any final thoughts?
Rogers: I enjoyed seeing all of Oakland! I knew every single location they used! It was like driving around my old neighbourhood.
Jackson: Is that one bar they go to real? The one with all the Christmas lights?
Rogers: It is!
Jackson: Holy shit I need to go. Hope I don’t turn into a Horse Man while I’m there.