Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lives with his activist artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his Uncle Sergio's (Terry Crews) Oakland garage and is four months late with his rent. Desperate to find a job, he takes a position earning commissions as a telemarketer at RegalView. But after taking advice from his cube mate Langston (Danny Glover) to use his 'white voice,' Cassius becomes so successful, he's catapulted into the upper echelons of power-callers where he learns the true cost of capitalism in "Sorry to Bother You."
From the mind of writer/director Boots Riley comes one truly bonkers satire about the depravity of corporate greed. The movie is a mess, an unfettered explosion of ideas one wishes had been more carefully crafted. And yet the ideas that land land like a megaton bomb. "Sorry to Bother You" is the political satire equivalent of "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," a film you keep rooting for despite its obvious flaws.
Take, for example, the film's 'white voice' element. Early project supporters David Cross and Patton Oswalt provide these for Stanfield and Omari Hardwick's Mr. Blank respectively, but I kept thinking how much sharper the effect might have been had both adopted Richard Pryor's standup comedy approach. When Cassius becomes momentarily corrupted by his new status and gets hit on the head crossing a picket line, he spends most of the remainder of the film with a white bandage around his head. But the blood-stained cloth around his noggin is so obviously a piece of costuming, it nagged at me in every scene. A visual gag that didn't work or sloppiness? Hard to tell, but I'm guessing Riley was going for the surreal and fell short. In the film's third act, Riley employs a (great) stop motion short as corporate 'future of labor' propaganda credited to 'Michael Dongry,' that acknowledges Riley's debt to French filmmaker Michel Gondry, another music video filmmaker with a wild imagination, but whose best work was written by Charlie Kaufman.
One bit of surrealism that works well involves Cassius's initial calls at RegalView. Upon uttering the titular phrase, we see his desk crash right into the homes of people all too eager to make him go away, the hollowness of his words registering as he witnesses folks just trying to eat or make love in peace. Just as surreal are the office stooges, boss Anderson (Robert Longstreet) having outed Cassius's false resume claims, then offering him the job anyway, Johnny (Michael X. Sommers) and Diana DeBauchery (Kate Berlant) spouting mind numbing corporate slogans. But when Cassius is seduced by Mr. Blank's flattering lure to join the power callers, Detroit, whose fashion choices are inspired, tells him he 'sidesteps more than The Temptations.' He may have a fancy new condo, but she's no longer in it.
Things really get bonkers when Cassius is invited to a party at CEO Steve Lift's (Armie Hammer) mansion where he's promised the pretty women on hand will be getting naked soon. Cassius is expected to rap because he's black and, grasping at straws, begins repeating what most old white racists probably think about it. Lift's scene eats it up and it is both uncomfortably confrontational and hilarious. The coke-snorting Lift has his eye on Cassius for parent company WorryFree, whose slave labor is shilled by RegalView power callers. As it dawns on Cassius just why Lift is dangling a $100 million payday, an escape to use the bathroom leads him through a wrong door, witnessing the full horror of WorryFree's 'future of labor.'
This piece of insanity works, fantastical creativity pointed in its message. The film has so many things going for it - like the xeroxed 'motivational' picture Cassius keeps with him that keeps changing - its unconstrained lunacy combined with sharp satire wins you over. The cast is also exceptional, Stanfield's Everyman buffeted by clashing sides like an innocent adrift, Thompson a fiery avenger, Hammer coating his black soul with an open charm that's just off enough to unease. The film also stars Jermaine Fowler as Cassius's friend Salvador and Steven Yeun as RegalView rights activist Squeeze.
"Sorry to Bother You" frustrates with its uneven execution, but Boots Riley is an artist worth championing.
Robin did not see this film.
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