FILM REVIEW – SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. With Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Danny Glover, Armie Hammer. Written and directed by Boots Riley. Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use. 105 minutes.
The damndest thing you’re gonna see this summer – and probably all year – is rapper Boots Riley’s debut feature, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, a screamingly funny anti-capitalist manifesto, an air-horn blast of subversion with a surreal, midnight-movie twist. It’s like if “Get Out” got all mixed up with “Repo Man,” Robert Downey Sr. and scabrous early Brian De Palma satires like “Greetings” and “Hi, Mom!” Even the title proves hilariously ironic for such a punchy provocation.
The film stars Lakeith Stanfield as the exquisitely-named Cassius Green, currently living in his Uncle Sergio’s garage somewhere in Oakland while dating a radical performance artist (Tessa Thompson) of dubious talent. “Cash,” as he’s called by his friends, takes a questionable job selling encyclopedias on commission for a telemarketing firm, and the first of Riley’s prankish visual stunts finds the contents of Cash’s cubicle crash-landing into the kitchens and living rooms of prospective customers while he repeats the film’s title, trying sputter out a sales pitch.
Cash’s co-worker Danny Glover (who gloriously gets to claim he’s “too old for this shit”) coaches him on finding his “white voice” – a way of appealing to clients by sounding like all of your bills are paid. Our hero discovers a hitherto unknown upper octave (amusingly overdubbed by real-life white guy David Cross) and it launches his sales into the stratosphere. Before long Cash Green is seeing tons of green cash, taking a literal golden elevator up to a luxurious corporate office while abandoning his friends on the floor who are trying to organize for fair wages.
In synopsis “Sorry to Bother You” probably sounds like a black-and-white morality tale about the perils of selling out to The Man, which I suppose it is, in addition to being about at least sixteen other things at once. Riley brings along his carefully cluttered hip-hop style to sample dozens of social satire riffs, skipping across subjects with an enthusiasm as clumsy as it is infectious. The movie misses almost as often as it hits, but when the big swings land they leave a mark. Flat as all the inane art-world parody may fall, when Cash is coerced into rapping for his new white friends Riley conjures an incendiary, catch-in-your-throat comic set-piece to rival anything in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled.”
It only gets more audacious upon the arrival of Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift, a coked-out tech-bro of Jobs or Bezos proportions who has big plans in mind for our protagonist. Hammer’s vaguely sinister air of aristocracy hasn’t been put to such good use since “The Social Network,” and Stanfield’s naturally suspicious demeanor makes for a perfect foil. (I wouldn’t dare give away the big twist, save to say that certain particulars involving stereotypically black physical characteristics are gasp-inducingly funny even though I’m not sure if I’m allowed to laugh.)
“Sorry to Bother You” is ultimately too scattershot to be a great movie, but it’s a great first movie. Here’s a ferocious new talent kicking down the door with enough cojones and go-for-broke ambition to fuel a dozen lesser films. You leave wanting most of all to see what Boots Riley does next.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.