With a baseline of eccentricity and challenging motifs, Sorry to Bother You blazes a trail into brilliant, unpredictable territory. It is a flaming-hot debut for polymath Boots Riley.
Lakeith Stanfield, so excellent in Short Term 12 in 2013 before a smashing reemergence on Atlanta and in Get Out, is Cassius Green. Cash to his friends, he’s a low-skilled but wily guy who gets himself a job in telemarketing. Shilling for the anonymously dour RegalView will help him to pay off the rent on his garage-home, and show his fiery girlfriend that he’s ambitious.
Tessa Thompson is Detroit, this provocateur, an artist who makes her own absurdist earrings, boasting slogans like “KILL KILL KILL” and “TELL HOMELAND SECURITY”. She, too, ends up working at RegalView, as the marketing company becomes questionably entangled with WorryFree, a dystopian company offering life-time contracts to effectively enslave the working class.
Sorry to Bother You takes its first real dive off the typical track when Cash is advised by an older colleague (Danny Glover) that he’ll only succeed if he uses his “white voice” when calling. This voice, summoned from a place Cash didn’t know he could access, is that of David Cross, and so stereotypically white that Cash’s success is assured, along with the “Power Caller” status that all the other peons crave.
Unionisation, sell-outs and backstabbing follow, as the magic-realistic world Riley paints gets more and more blurred and absurd. Armie Hammer rears into frame as a pointed satire of Silicon Valley thoughtlessness, and then things get wild in a way that shouldn’t be spoiled.
Riley was politely strident in his criticism of the mild, forgiving nature of Spike Lee’s recent race-relations film BlacKkKlansman, and made it clear that Sorry to Bother You is a more deliberate attack on the current racial politics of America. In that light it is a thrilling work, feature satires bold and subtle, critiquing capitalism and racism with wit and verve.
Jokes flow nicely, ranging from the straightforward to more confusing and non-sequitur about-faces. It is relentlessly surprising and bold. Occasionally this can feel rough, whether a scene ends without a clear resolution or a visual effect slightly is shown up under light, but these moments feel part and parcel of the maniacal tone Riley is conjuring.
Stanfield is a likeable protagonist, and impressively able to demonstrate the conflicted morals of one who finds himself behind enemy lines on a cushy deal. Thompson matches his apathy with a shallow, confusing sort of motivation. It’s unclear what parts of her life are merely performative, and what parts represent her true beliefs.
As Cash’s journey to the heart of corrupt mega-business unfolds, you can sense Riley cackling over the late developments he then oversees. These, in the film’s final twenty minutes, are thrillingly zany, and entirely surprising at various points. They will leave viewers gasping at the audacity of so new a director taking them on a journey quite so weird.