Stoner comedy with social significance? Welcome to "Sorry to Bother You," an eccentric, imperfect but original and hugely enjoyable satire.
The mischievous film is written and directed by Oakland rapper and social-activist-turned-filmmaker Boots Riley. The founder and lead vocalist of the politically militant rap band the Coup, Riley has been creating power-to-the people music for more than 20 years. His hell-raising film debut is, as you might expect, a radical up-ender of staid ideas about race, class and capitalism.
What's surprising is how hilarious it is. Riley knows that a spoonful of sugar will help you ingest his ideas. If the thought of a weaponized farce about the insanities of the 21st-century status quo has you clutching your pearls, chill. Even if you find the movie ideologically repugnant, it's wonderfully lively and entertaining to watch. It will blow your mind and put it together in amazing new ways.
The plot goes something like this: Cassius Green (played by "Atlanta's" Lakeith Stanfield) is scraping by in a surreal version of Oakland set maybe 10 minutes in the future, feeling less at home in the gentrifying city. Empty pockets have generated existential angst. He asks his rainbow-haired performance-artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), what's the point of trying because one day the sun will explode?
But before that, Cash faces more direct problems: He's four months behind on the rent for the tiny apartment they share in the converted garage of his Uncle Serge (Terry Crews). Serge needs the rent quick because he's behind on mortgage payments and facing foreclosure. But Cash is even poorer than Serge. When he drives his beater to the gas station and prepays the cashier for "40 on two," he isn't handing over a pair of $20 bills but a quarter, a dime and a nickel.
Because necessity is the mother of desperation, Cash interviews at Regal View, a telemarketing sweatshop selling hokey personal security services. Cash is pretty good at selling illusions, too, presenting the shady branch manager references in the form of a blatantly fake employee-of-the-month plaque and a homemade trophy. Impressed by his skill as a fraud, the supervisor says he's just what the firm wants: "You have initiative, and you can read!"
Voilà: Free enterprise to the rescue. If he can con enough suckers, Cash will be on a rocket ride from rags to riches. Except in this economy nothing is legit. He's mounting a big-bang firework that will lift him financially for a while, then explode.
Still, what an exciting ascent! A wise veteran marketer (Danny Glover) counsels Cash to use his "white voice." "Not Will Smith white," he says, but an easy-breezy tone that sounds as if "you don't have a care in the world," like when you're pulled over by the police.
The code shifting scam is pulled off wonderfully, with David Cross dubbing Cash's ultra-nasal intonations. The clunky link between Stanfield's expression and Cross' chatter makes it all the goofier. Cash's doublespeak succeeds in the story, too. Champagne corks pop as the rising star is moved from his cubicle to a posh executive suite — making the daily trip in a golden elevator, no less.
He becomes the toast of a VIP party hosted by smug tech billionaire Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, delightfully off his rocker). His latest venture, a startup company called Worry Free, will provide the working class with stacked bunks, gruel and matching uniforms in exchange for indentured servitude. By now, Cash is wondering whether gaining the world is worth forfeiting his values, heart and soul. As Lift, who snorts lines of cocaine like a Dyson vacuum, details his futuristic plans to rebuild U.S. society by rewiring it person by person, we veer into science fantasy and things become very bad-trippy.
"Sorry to Bother You" is corrosively funny in its portrait of business ethics and economics, represented as Three Card Monte on an epic scale. The only character who can channel talent, ambition and moxie into a solid work life is Detroit. Her acted poetry shows at a pretentious gallery get her pelted by the audience, but her day job as a sidewalk advertising sign twirler plays like a street dance boogaloo. Creativity finds a way.
Stanfield carries in his eyes the beaten-down look of a perpetually guilty man. He recognizes that corporate life is a sap's game, but he can't resist its electromagnetic attraction. He's made wonderfully nervous by the come-hither stares he begins to draw from an office charmer who never gave him the time of day before. His confusion feels weirdly resonant, especially as his status as an upscale drone sours his connection with the warm, lovely Detroit. Thompson, reliably excellent, digs deep under Detroit's sensitive skin.
The movie is crammed with moments that linger long after you've left the theater and forgotten the passages that didn't quite work. Although Riley has never commanded a camera before, this weird little gem doesn't feel like a beginner's film. He's a performer who clearly knows how to handle performers, one of the most interesting fresh talents in the new wave of black filmmaking.