Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You is among the best film debuts in years, and is a gonzo political satire you'll never predict.
It’s an understatement to say that first-time filmmaking is difficult. The process of finding your cinematic voice can be an insurmountable challenge, while independent financing is usually an impossible one. Which makes crisp and stunning debuts like Sorry to Bother You all the more revelatory. When a filmmaker such as Boots Riley can reach through the screen and so easily shake his audience on an emotional, intellectual, and just plain entertaining level, it’s more than a surprise; it’s a confident announcement that a new and major player on cinema’s landscape has emerged.
As among the best feature film debuts that I’ve seen in the last half-decade, Sorry to Bother You comes out of the gate fully formed and driven by a burgeoning auteur’s perspective, which perhaps unsurprisingly is just as derived from a political and social sting as Riley’s Oakland musical act, The Coup. Like the lyricism in his hip hop fusion, here is a film that mischievously savors near-constant tonal shifts, flipping between allegory and absurdity, magical realism and real grit, which keeps its audience laughing until the film is ready to deliver its biting third act twists. It truly cannot be exaggerated how off-balance you’ll feel when the devastating finale crashes across your head.
This aesthetical rope-a-dope is apparent from the very first scene in which Lakeith Stanfield sits in an office ready to charm his way into a telemarketing job. With an employee of the month placard in one hand and a high school trophy in the other, his desperation for the gig is not subtle, nor is the revelation that both “qualifications” are forged. Luckily the white employer conducting the interview sees such flexibility with the truth as perfect prerequisites for a career in salesmanship.
Indeed, the film on its most basic level can be summed up as the professional trajectory of Cassius “Cash” Green (Stanfield), a man who climbs the corporate ladder of telemarketing. But the insidious brilliance of the setup is that he does so by donning a white voice. And not just a “white” affectation that puts consumers at ease, but a serious, honest to God alabaster cadence that sounds a whole lot like David Cross occupying Lakeith Stanfield’s vocal chords—which comes out every time Cash dials a number and is visually transported into apathetic white homes like an unannounced relative barging in on his prey, whether they’re at the dinner table, in the bathroom, or lounging on the couch. This is after all how Omari Hardwick’s Mr. ____ (often with the voice of Patton Oswalt) climbed to the very top of this industry that Cash is also profiting in, even as his friends and co-workers organize to form a union that demands better wages.
So while co-star Steve Yeun’s “Squeeze” and the political left gets motivated, and Cash’s performance artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) attempts to speak truth to power through some bizarrely esoteric art installations, Cash is literally on the elevator that will take him to the lofty aerie of Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), a grinning CEO who seems to consist on a diet of cocaine and Adderall, and who has come upon a novel idea for the labor industry: force debtors into being “Worry Free” indentured servants. And he wants Cash to help sell his vision of happy, legal slaves to corporate America.
Clearly Sorry to Bother You is a massively ambitious project that has a lot to say about American life, much of which can be summarized as burn it all down and start over. But it balances these elements with such finesse that its desire to jump from subplot to subplot, and pointed political message to pointed political message, can feel buoyant and giddy, even as the film can sometimes stretch itself thin at just over 105 minutes.
It is the Riley’s bitter sense of humor that causes its gonzo revolution to be somehow joyous, even if it is one that includes telemarketers selling out to hawk government-sanctioned bondage. This is also buttressed with a wide and impressive ensemble, led by a very game Stanfield. As an actor who often makes the counterintuitive choice, Stanfield adds a real twinkle to Cash’s initial anxiety that complements and then blurs with a not-so-hidden avarice.
He is also a sturdy linchpin to a troupe that is making some deliciously weird choices, such as how Thompson underplays the enigmatic Detroit. There are so many moving elements among the cast that one wishes the film could spend more time with all of them, yet they’re often pieces on Riley’s broader satirical board, a sprawling but astutely designed structure meant to elicit maximum gallows humor. This includes Hammer, who doesn’t come to prominence until the film’s third act, but whose boisterous joviality helps elevate the movie’s ironies from bemusing to disturbing.
As a whole, Sorry to Bother You will be initially overwhelming and could be misconstrued as unwieldy, but as a whole it is so brashly entertaining and assured in its purpose that it’d be a mistake to not recognize its distinct voice, which never falls off-message despite intentionally hopscotching between a half-dozen of them. Defying all narrative convention and genre expectation, Sorry to Bother You is a film quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen and most definitely signals that Boot Riley as a filmmaker to watch out for. Well him and telemarketers.