Boots Riley’s debut film, the deeply weird and deeply thrilling “Sorry to Bother You,” is poised to become the most talked-about movie of the summer. The satirical anti-capitalist cri de coeur is the synthesis of Riley’s life and work as a politically conscious rapper and Oakland, Calif., community organizer, and it’s the perfect film for the moment.
The absurdist parable set is in a dystopian alternate timeline and world that look and feel very much like ours, but slightly off. Riley has cast it perfectly with a host of total weirdos, cool kids and cool weirdos. Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green, a young striver who becomes the figurehead for the struggle between the American dream and human morality.
Cassius is a dreamy but unmotivated type. He lives in his uncle’s garage with his uber-cool artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), and laments his legacy. But his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews) is breathing down his neck for the rent.
In this Oakland, it seems the only jobs available are in marketing and sales. Detroit twirls a sign on the street to finance her radical artwork and dabbles in secret anarchic anti-corporate activism. Cassius is tempted by the lifetime guaranteed work contract at the mysterious company Worry Free, though the violent protests by former workers alleging the company engages in human slavery deter that thought. Instead, he scams his way into a telemarketing job.
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Though some of his co-workers are planning a union bid, Cassius is intrigued by the promise of becoming a “power caller.” A longtime employee (Danny Glover) advises him to use his “white voice” (dubbed by David Cross) on the calls, and soon sales commissions are rolling in, and he’s rocketing upstairs in a golden elevator.
That elevator turns into a rabbit hole all the way into the corrupt heart of the corporate stranglehold, embodied by pepped-up billionaire entrepreneur Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). Steve’s business innovations are so unconventional they’re monstrous, inspiring a revolution in the streets. Cassius struggles to decide which side he’s on. The financial promise and comforts are tangible, but what he uncovers is unbelievably bizarre, inhumane and terrifying.
And yet. It’s not too far off from the kind of ethos espoused in the most troubling corners of the tech industry we know, where productivity and profit are enthroned as sacrosanct. Riley just spins the idea out into a surreal cinematic reality that’s simultaneously silly and nightmarish.
It’s a truly stunning debut film — specific and singular, every detail wonderfully haphazard but perfectly placed. With a thrumming punk-rap hybrid soundtrack by his group the Coup, and a daring, confrontational vision, Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” will at once delight and rattle you to your bones.
‘Sorry to Bother You’
Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use.