If Terry Gilliam, Spike Jonze, Spike Lee, and David Cronenberg got together and remade Office Space, you might get something that approximates Boots Riley's writing/directing debut Sorry to Bother You. Riley has described the film as "an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction inspired by the world of telemarketing," which is pretty much spot on. As a hip-hop artist and producer, Riley has been at the center of politically provocative music for several decades, and his film debut is a kind of extension of that sensibility, throwing out all the rules in creating a deliriously entertaining and viciously bizarre satire of the logical ends of capitalism, corporate culture, race relations, and ethics-free technological and biological advancement. Sound like a lot? It is, but somehow Riley makes it hold together if by nothing more than sheer force of will and a refusal to play it safe.
The protagonist is Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young African American trying to make it financially and find some kind of identity in the process. His dedicated girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), is an artist who, despite also struggling financially, has her feet solidly planted in terms of who she is. Cassius, on the other hand, is floundering. His attempt to secure a job at a telemarketing company via wild lies about his past work experience is both hilarious and indicative of just how desperate he is. He lands the job anyway, but can't make much progress until the older black man in the cubicle next to him (Danny Glover) tells him to use his "white voice" when on the phone (a lesson that Riley learned personally when working as a telemarketer in California). In one of the film's first major digressions from reality, Cassisus learns to affect such a voice, with Stanfield mouthing the words (often badly) that actor/comedian David Cross fills on the soundtrack. He becomes wildly successful in selling encyclopedias over the phone, which gets him promoted upstairs to the rarefied world of "Power Callers," where he begins working for WorryFree, a massive international corporation that promises lifetime employment, housing, and food for its workers-a deal that sounds too good to be true.
Nevertheless, Cassius is seduced by a big paycheck and respect from those with whom he works, which forces him to leave behind both Detroit and Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) and Squeeze (Steven Yeun), fellow telemarketers who have started a movement to create a union to pressure management for better pay and benefits. Essentially, Cassius must ditch his blue-collar brothers to make the big bucks among the white collars, which makes him especially vulnerable to WorryFree's creepily handsome CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who wants him to be deeply involved in the company's next stage of development, which is well something horrific that is simultaneously horrifically absurd and absurdly logical. In its final third, Sorry to Bother You takes a hard left turn into truly bizarre territory that will likely test some viewers' willingness (or ability) to stick with it. But, stick with it you should, because Riley's film has a biting sensibility that digs right at the core of rot in a system that is deeply invested in maintaining illusions of equal opportunity for all while ensuring a rigid divide between the exploiters and the exploited. Riley is a political provocateur, no doubt (remember that his band The Coup's 2001 album Party Music was originally intended to be released with an image of him and DJ Pam the Funkstress blowing up the World Trade Center in an eerily prescient image that was understandably yanked after 9/11), and he approaches Sorry to Bother You like he's never going to get to direct another film, so he better get in all his shots.
Such a mentality results in a film that sometimes feels like it's flying in 50 different directions, but that somehow feels right, as part of the film's thematic core is the overwhelming clutter of modern life and the difficulty of finding oneself in it, especially if that self is black. One of the film's best qualities is its ability to convey the African American experience without making it the central subject of the film. Rather, Riley takes race into account, but as one component in a larger struggle between marginalized individuals wading through a system that both needs them and deplores them. Sorry to Bother You, as the title implies, is not meant to go down easy, and it gives you every reason to resist it: It's weird, it's impulsive, it wears its political goals too nakedly on its sleeve, it's both derivative and undeniably original-but it works.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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