“Hey youngblood,” says novice telemarketer Cassius’ (Lakeith Stanfield) cannier colleague Langston (Danny Glover). “Use your white voice. Like being pulled over by the police.” If the African-American Cassius wants to succeed, he needs to play the system, as well as some dirty tricks. More significantly, he’s got to be someone — something — he’s not. If he even knows what he is to begin with.
Sorry To Bother You is a dialled-up, adrenalised satire that throws everything it’s got at the screen, writer-director Boots Riley’s wealth of life experience exploding indiscriminately. The son of civil rights campaigners, Riley has been proactively into politics forever, and his debut film is fiercely anti-capitalist. Stanfield (Get Out, Atlanta) holds it all together as Cassius, a goofy klutz who lives in his uncle’s garage, lacks conviction and suffers extreme existential angst: just for one night, can he not fret about the sun exploding, pleads his activist/performance artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson).
Director Boots Riley has ideas to spare, and then some.
Social concerns are wrestled — make that piledriven — from the start. It’s a technicolour rant, from its stop-motion sequences to its horrific gameshow ‘I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me’ to the gold elevator reserved for RegalView’s top level ‘power callers’. It’s a very Trumpian elevator, but Riley isn’t raging at specific figures or political parties — it’s the entire system that’s up for the chop, including us. We are all capital, Riley reminds us, but all also infected by capitalism — we’re part of the problem. Sorry To Bother You is about how money and ego can corrode us; it’s about selling out, sacrificing our identity, our morality, our principles.
Riley has ideas to spare, and then some. Tonally, aesthetically and narratively, everything is crazed, with absurdist diversions and DIY stylings reminiscent of, respectively, Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry. An early sequence of Cassius, at his desk, literally crashing into people’s lives, is a startling jolt, and things get wilder as the film goes on. It’s a blast; sometimes it’s a little too much so, as everything is so skitty, so mad, and fast, it’s hard to keep up with.
Yet it hits hard, thanks to its endless invention and the sheer balls of it all. There are amazing lines; when Cassius posits that comparing his department to RegalView’s upper echelons is like comparing apples to oranges, he is told it’s more like comparing apples to the Holocaust. Stanfield, once again, is great as a man out of place, and Thompson, once again, is like a unicorn spewing glitter. But it’s Riley’s film, and this is him rigidly planting a flag. Unapologetically.