An inventive and exciting satire from first-time director/screenwriter
Sorry to Bother You is a raw, rollicking comedy/satire with a frantically contemporary buzz to it. It’s got a love story, a touch of sci-fi, a streak of dystopian farce, a thumpingly jazzy soundtrack and a tangle of social-protest stuff bearing variously on issues of race, class and economic inequality.
As the rapper Boots Riley’s feature-length debut as a writer-director, it’s both fascinating and uneven. The first half of the picture may be more effective than the second half, but an abundance of brazen freshness—in the performances, in the humor, in the zigzags of plot—keeps the whole enterprise sailing throughout.
The chief protagonist is one Cassius Green (an excellent Lakeith Stanfield), a somewhat hapless young man who lives in his uncle’s garage and guilelessly romances his girlfriend (Tessa Thompson), a feisty artist/activist named Detroit. The somewhat desperate “Cash” finds work as a telemarketer, and becomes wildly successful once he begins making calls using his “white voice.”
The first half of the story focuses on Cassius and his 20-something friends in Oakland trying to find jobs in the local economy of corporate high-tech, with the “white voice” conceit serving as the pivot point for a good deal of barbed comedy and satire.
Oakland remains the setting in the second half as the satire turns to large-scale stylizations in portraying the elite “power callers” (to whose ranks an ambivalent Cassius is promoted) and the futuristic schemes (including eugenics and robotic indoctrination) of an “innovative” mogul named Steve Lift (a chillingly blithe Armie Hammer).
For better or worse, the film seems a rousingly mixed bag—some very good jokes, some very pungent satirical jibes, some resounding themes that more than once hit very close to home, a mélange of charming and/or amusing performances, some over-the-top and others delicately realistic. Stanfield, Thompson and Hammer are particularly good in the latter respect.
Standouts among the supporting players include Jermaine Fowler (as Green’s best buddy, Salvador), Terry Crews (as Green’s bombastic uncle), Steven Yeun (as a labor organizer called Squeeze), Kate Berlant (as Diana DeBauchery, a remarkably antic assistant who insists that her last name is not pronounced the same as “debauchery”), Danny Glover (as an aged and amiable telemarketer), Omari Hardwick (as a tough-looking manager known only as “Mr. [bleep]”), and Michael X. Sommers and Robert Longstreet as variously grotesque and buffoonish managers.
The suppliers of characters’ “white voices” include David Cross (for Cassius), Lily James (British accent for Detroit) and Patton Oswald (for “Mr. [bleep]”). And a necessarily unrecognizable Forest Whitaker appears as the horse-headed Demarius, the first of the cross-bred “Equisapiens” that Cassius discovers in Steve Lift’s labyrinthian factory, stable and breeding ground.