Plenty of films with a ‘message’ come across as melodramatic or pretentious, yet Riley’s script subverts this by smartly developing its argument over time. In fact, its first act is largely devoted to simply letting the audience warm to Cash, which feels effortless when combined with Stanfield’s performance. Although longtime Atlanta viewers will already know just how talented Stanfield is, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is his best showcase yet: the universal nature of Cash’s early worries (getting a job, leaving a legacy) allows Stanfield’s sheer charisma to shine through, rendering him immensely likeable even when lying in a job interview or dodging his uncle’s requests for overdue rent. Eventually, Cash settles into a low-level telemarketing position at RegalView, where Riley slowly reveals his searing socioeconomic criticism.
At the same time a co-worker proposes RegalView workers unionise to fight their poor conditions, Cash discovers he’s a talented salesman and begins to climb the ranks. His former peers subsequently accuse him of selling out, and if you thought that phrase already had negative connotations, Riley makes the consequences seem even worse here. I can’t say much more without spoiling most of the film, but it does involve an enigmatic corporation promising food and housing to workers who sign “lifetime labour contracts”; don’t worry, the CEO swears it’s different to
Meanwhile, Riley and Stanfield are surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast, several of whom are impressively quick to grasp the film’s humour despite their few prior comedic roles. Thor: Ragnarok and The Lone Ranger are undeniably funny at times, yet I can’t recall Tessa Thompson or Armie Hammer ever having had to balance surrealism and deadpan wit like they do here. Similarly, Steven Yeun’s performance pleasantly surprised me, with the Walking Dead alum exuding an unexpected charm and pitch-perfect sense of timing that even matches Stanfield. Yet perhaps the most ingenious casting choice is David Cross as Cash’s “white voice”, that is, the persona he adopts to make sales. Despite Cross’ scenes amounting to merely dubbing Stanfield’s lines, the veteran comedian seems to revel in this bold self-parody and ensures it never feels like a glorified cameo. Speaking of cameos though, there are some other big names to listen out for, particularly as the film begins to unveil a bizarre sci-fi twist (check the producer credits if you’re lost). My above praise for the cast aside, Boots Riley deserves the most recognition for crafting such a singular, instantly memorable debut. As the most compelling examination of capitalism since The Big Short, as well as the year’s most unique comedy, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is undeniably a highlight of 2018 in film.