It’s best to avoid reading a detailed plot synopsis of “Sorry to Bother You,” the indie darling from first-time writer / director Boots Riley, before seeing the movie. There are two reasons for this. One, it would be a shame to spoil the absurdist insanity that quickly ensues on screen and two, no recap could ever do this project justice.
The film is set in a sort of alternate reality version of present-day Oakland, where the cash-strapped Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is searching for a new job. His performance artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) makes ends meet by working as a sign twirler on the side of the road. When Cassius gets hired by a telemarketing company, he quickly climbs the ladder of success by “using his white voice” and soon gets promoted to the position of Power Caller. Things become increasingly bizarre as a new door is opened and dark secrets are revealed. His little corner of the world gets all-out nuts when Cassius receives an unimaginable salary offer from the cocaine-snorting company CEO (Armie Hammer).
It’s an understatement to call this film fearlessly ambitious. It’s an often funny and always disturbing politically charged fantasy / comedy. It’s wholly original, yet comparisons to 20xx’s “Get Out” are inevitable.
Riley paints an absurdist vision of surrealist horror and ludicrous satire wrapped around a tale where nightmarish capitalism, the cultural celebration of society’s rapid dumbing-down, and astute insight intersect. The film tells a story of slavery from a position of class instead of race, exploring the real life moral dilemma of living comfortably yourself while getting rich off the backs of others. It’s a conundrum that many of us face in life and that, if focused on exclusively, would’ve made the film even stronger. Instead, Riley chooses to throw too much to the wall.
It’s not only the blending of genre conventions that prevents this project from being a cohesive artistic statement, it’s the lack of focus. This movie is all over the place, a messy blend of insanity that suffers without a clear vision. It’s not the bizarro turn the film eventually takes that makes it veer uncontrollably off course, it’s the feeling of helter-skelter weirdness just for the sake of being weird that nearly brings its downfall.
Then again, the sloppy insanity of it all lends an air of artistic brilliance that, while far from an unblemished achievement, feels light years ahead of its time. I’ve never seen a story about race relations, class struggles, corporate evils, and a celebration of the power of the people presented this way. My mind hasn’t stopped turning for days after watching this movie, and that’s something great artists can strive for lifetimes to achieve.
“Sorry to Bother You” is a frenzy of social satire that’s as disheveled as it is provocative, and it’s a strong, audacious effort from a fresh and progressive new voice in cinema.