Writer and director Boots Riley's crackling first film "Sorry to Bother You " may just be the craziest movie of the year. Fierce, provocative and bold, it's a challenging social statement about race and capitalism wrapped in a colorful, magical realist coating that will leave your head spinning. It is not perfect — far from it — and really goes off the rails at the end, but its ideas and impact are undeniable.
The brilliant Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green, a young man living with his artist-activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his uncle's garage in Oakland, California. He's behind on his rent and desperately needs a job. In an interview at a telemarketing agency, RegalView, he touts his accomplishments from jobs past and has even brought an employee of the month placard from one of his gigs, like a kid at show and tell.
But while this image might tug at some heartstrings, it's not as simple as it looks. The man behind the desk knows Cassius, or Cash as many of his friends call him, is lying. He's fabricated his resume and gotten his friend to pose as a former supervisor. But the recruiter is impressed with his initiative and hires him on the spot. Besides, he says, telemarketing doesn't require any skills.
The RegalView offices are in a dreary, soul-crushing basement, packed to the brim with row upon row of cubicle-bound workers making unsolicited phone calls trying to sell encyclopedias to unappreciative customers. The film illustrates this invasive process in a wildly funny way, showing Cash and his entire cubicle drop into the living room or kitchen of whomever he is calling.
Work is not going well for Cash, until a friendly co-worker, Langston (Danny Glover), leans over and suggests he use his "white voice" (not a "Will Smith white voice," he clarifies). So Cash begins speaking in a higher pitched, nasally voice that is unmistakable as the unique vocal stylings of David Cross and, well, it works. Really, really well. Suddenly Cash is making sales, catching the attention of his bosses and on track to get a big promotion to "Power Caller" that would get him out of the basement.
Stanfield, who is always memorable no matter how big the role, from "Short Term 12" to "Get Out," delivers a powerful performance as Cassius in his oppression, his empowerment and eventual enlightenment. Both he and Thompson effortlessly maintain their characters' integrity even as the narrative gets exponentially crazier as the film goes on. And it only gets crazier.
Cash's ascent does not come without some moral compromise and in accepting the fancy new position, he not only becomes a scab while his former co-workers strike, but he's also decided to turn a blind eye to the fact that he's now essentially hawking slave labor for a company called WorryFree, run by an arrogant bro-CEO played by Armie Hammer.
WorryFree preys on the poor, promising a life without bills or commutes in exchange for a lifetime labor contract working for the company and living on the factory grounds. Sunny advertisements, which play on the breaks of a TV game show called "I Got The (Expletive) Kicked Out of Me," show prison-like conditions, with crowded bunk beds and slop for food, but the actors are all happy and healthy and promise that the food is great. It might not be subtle, but it sure is memorable.
If you're thinking that this all sounds like a lot, it is. And "Sorry to Bother You" has a lot more to say about exploitative capitalist systems, white privilege, black bodies, protest art and even viral videos. While it doesn't always work, Riley has clearly held nothing back and after 25+ years of using his voice and unique point of view in the world of hip-hop, this is as audacious an entry into the world of feature filmmaking as one could possibly make. Hopefully it won't be his last.
"Sorry to Bother You," an Annapurna Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use." Running time: 105 minutes. Three stars out of four.