Did Sorry to Bother You really happen, or did I dream it? This trippy debut film from writer-director Boots Riley premiered yesterday at the Sundance Film Festival, but it also seems entirely possible that it was pulled straight from my sleeping subconscious, since it’s bursting with actors I love and scenes so surreal they can only be powered by dream logic. Let’s talk it out so I can try to determine if the whole movie was simply in my head, or if Sorry to Bother You really is a thing that exists.
Let’s start with its star, Lakeith Stanfield, since for a while now I’ve dreamed of seeing the 26-year-old actor in a leading-man role. Stanfield has been stealing scenes from Short Term 12 all the way to FX’s Atlanta, and he’s perfectly cast here as Cassius, whose hustle to pay rent leads him to take a job at a vaguely sinister telemarketing company. Stanfield has an innate wiggliness no matter where he’s put — he would even look uncomfortable and out of place at a Lakeith Stanfield convention — and at first, Cassius seems a touch too quirky for a job where the telemarketers are encouraged to stick to the script. His success rate skyrockets, however, once Cassius hits upon the notion of using the ultimate “white voice” on the phone, which Riley portrays by overdubbing Stanfield with David Cross. Those scenes are surreal enough, but they get even weirder when Power star Omari Hardwick enters the film as an eyepatch-clad telemarketer whose own white voice is dubbed in by Patton Oswalt. That’s a normal sentence, right?
It’s also entirely possible I dreamed up Tessa Thompson as Stanfield’s girlfriend, because who among us hasn’t daydreamed about the Thor: Ragnarok star? In Sorry to Bother You, she plays Detroit, an eccentric artist with hair like rainbow sherbet and a collection of perhaps the best movie earrings ever. (Thompson rocks a new pair in every scene, and my favorites were probably the gold-plated electric chairs, the glitter-dipped penises, and the set where the left earring reads “MURDER MURDER MURDER” and the right says “KILL KILL KILL.”) Detroit has an on-off thing going with Cassius, since his eagerness to sell out is at odds with her fight-the-power mentality, and I appreciated that they take a break long enough for Thompson to play a few flirtatious scenes with Steven Yeun, because who wouldn’t want to see the two of them lock lips? At least Thompson speaks for the audience: In one scene, when she comes upon Stanfield and Jermaine Fowler in the middle of a heated confrontation, she shouts, “Kiss already!”
Did I dream the entrance of Armie Hammer into this picture as a sarong-wearing CEO who does a line of coke so long it could stretch to the moon? Yes, but even if Riley pilfered that dream for Sorry to Bother You, I’m too pleased to seek damages. Hammer gets to put his confident-bastard charisma to good use here as a businessman whose brand is so strong that he can convince ordinary citizens to sign their lives away and become drones in his feudalist empire. Meanwhile, Hammer’s CEO lives the high life, presiding over orgies and wanton drug binges in his labyrinthine mansion. Elio would be shook.
I’m pretty sure that at one point in this movie-resembling dream I had, Danny Glover appeared as a co-worker of Stanfield’s who advises him on how a black man adopting a white voice can get ahead, using Will Smith as a famous example. The reason I remember was because Sundance juror Jada Pinkett Smith happened to be in the audience at this dream-premiere, which added an extra jolt to the joke. Did she let out a belly laugh, too? If we shared the same dream, maybe I’ll ask her sometime.
The more I talk this out with you, the more convinced I am that I must have imagined Sorry to Bother You. How else could I explain the existence of what some would deem a spoiler, though it’s too outrageous to stay secret for very long: This movie also features screaming, chimeric horse-men with gigantic swinging cocks. I won’t explain how they fit into the plot, but what use would that be, anyway? This is satire by way of Adult Swim, where the plot is just a clothesline to pin outrageous notions to. You may have gotten the sense that Sorry to Bother You is all over the place, but those places are so much fun that it’d be a crime not to visit. Compared to some of the sleepy dramas you often sit through at Sundance, this is one surreal dream that’s likely to keep you wide awake.