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Hip-hop recording artist Boots Riley makes an ambitious bow as writer-director with Sorry to Bother You, a blithely messy absurdist satire about African American identity in a social climate where success often tends to be defined as selling out. In terms of its grounding in a recognizable contemporary world, the movie doesn’t muster much clarity of vision; it feels more like one long stoner riff than a serious observation of shifting cultural realities. But while the filmmaking is raw, undisciplined and groaning under a cargo of self-conscious quirks, it scores points for originality and wacky creativity, which no doubt will earn it avid supporters.
One thing Riley, leader of the band The Coup, clearly has going for him is connections. The assembly of on-camera talent here is impressive, from charismatic new-generation discoveries like Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson and Jermaine Fowler to distinguished veteran Danny Glover, lending his customary twinkly-eyed wit. Not to mention Armie Hammer in a bizarro supporting role as an eccentric business mogul driven to outmaneuver the Chinese in terms of dehumanizing labor factories.
The movie’s scattershot focus and wildly hit-and-miss jokes might have seemed more at home in Sundance’s NEXT section for innovative emerging voices, rather than the dramatic competition usually reserved for more mature work.
There’s room for a broad spectrum of comedy dealing with Black identity, but the bar has been seriously raised in recent years with razor-sharp television like Atlanta (which launched Stanfield), Dear White People (adapted from the hilarious indie movie that provided Thompson with her breakout role) and Insecure, which weighs the struggle between professional achievement and personal fulfillment with peerless finesse. And on the big screen, last year’s Get Out set a thrilling new standard for merciless social and cultural observation.
All of which makes Sorry to Bother You seem labored and obvious. It’s like being clobbered over the head with a horse penis, which makes sense once you’ve seen the movie.
It takes place in an alternative version of present-day Oakland, California, where Cassius Green (Stanfield) fakes his credentials for a telemarketing job and gets called on it but lands the position anyway, because basically, they’ll take anyone who can read and stick to the script.
Back home in bed with his girlfriend Detroit (Thompson), Cassius has a mini crisis of conscience, wondering whether, by the time he dies, he will have done anything of lasting significance. That thought more or less evaporates the instant it’s uttered, though the scene does yield one of the movie’s funniest gags, when a defective door springs open just as the action is heating up between Cassius and Detroit, revealing that he’s living in the garage of his uncle (Terry Crews), with four months of back-rent owing.
Riley stitches in digs at a country where capitalism has run amok and popular entertainment has reached an all-time low. Billboards and television ads are ubiquitous for Worry Free, an insidious corporation providing a career-and-housing package, decried as the new slavery by a protest group called Left Eye. And the highest-rated show on TV is I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me, which as its title suggests, is all about violence and humiliation, forcing contestants not just to take a beating but also to swim through a river of feces.
Cassius struggles at first to earn commissions in the telemarketing job, and an amusing visual device drops him physically into the homes he’s calling, showing how hard it is to get customers’ attention. But when his cube-farm neighbor (Glover) advises him to use his “white voice” (dubbed by David Cross), suddenly he’s making fast phone friends and sealing deals. Another co-worker, Squeeze (Steven Yeun), sees Cassius’ enterprise as a potential asset in a growing employee movement to unionize and demand fair wages and benefits. But before they can make an impact, Cassius gets promoted upstairs to the inner sanctum of “power callers.”
That proves problematic for Detroit, who in addition to her day job as a sign-twirler and her sideline as a performance artist is also a secret Left Eye activist. Cassius’ elevated position, it emerges, is to sell Worry Free contracts to international technology manufacturers, undercutting the Chinese.
From there on in, both the plot and any remaining shred of thematic coherence unravel as Cassius is drawn into the orbit of coke-snorting Worry Free kingpin Steve Lift (Hammer), and his mad scheme to increase human productivity via genetic experimentation. Some will find this uproarious, and it’s certainly way out there, with some imaginative practical effects work that gives new meaning to the term “packhorse.” But the clash among union agitators, Left Eye protestors and the WF goon squad drags on and on to diminishing effect.
Likewise an unfunny joke hammered to death in which video of Cassius being slammed in the head with a soda can becomes a viral sensation called “Have a Cola and Smile, Bitch.” No prizes for guessing which TV show Cassius appears on, enduring physical punishment in his bid to expose the nefariousness of Lift. Let’s just say that by the time this chaotic movie was over, I felt like I’d had the shit kicked out of me.
Production companies: Cinereach, Significant Productions, MACRO, MNM Creative, The Space Program
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, Omari Hardwick, Jermaine Fowler, Danny Glover
Director-screenwriter: Boots Riley
Producers: Nina Yang Bongiovi, Forest Whitaker, Charles D. King, George Rush, Jonathan Duffy, Kelly Williams
Executive producers: Michael Y. Chow, Michael K. Shen, Kim Roth, Poppy Hanks, Philipp Engelhorn, Caroline Kaplan, Gus Deardoff
Director of photography: Doug Emmett
Production designer: Jason Kisvarday
Costume designer: Deirdra Govan
Music: Tune-Yards, The Coup
Editor: Terel Gibson
Casting: Eyde Belasco
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
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