Boots Riley's excessive indie is equal parts tantalizing and mystifying.
It's hard to deny Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You is anything less than ambitious. From the first trailer release, shortly after its Sundance premiere (where it was in the running for the Grand Jury Prize), its erratic energy was apparent. Now that's it's been released to the general public, its message derailing corporate America and the pursuit of the American dream is inspiring. But, the film's third act whips out an out-of-this-world trope that takes the film to new heights as either the wackiest piece of positive propaganda or the worst piece of stereotypical indie fare.
Lakeith Stanfield, familiar to most for his scene-stealing role in last year's Get Out, stars as Cassius Green, a down on his luck everyman looking for a quick way to make money and improve his life. Without much of a track record, he lies his way into a telemarketing job that appears as mundane as the day-to-day seen in other corporate flicks like Joe Versus the Volcano or Office Space. While attempting to master a successful cold call, he's given advice to utilize his 'white voice.' With that trick in hand, Green immediately rides the wave of success, eventually earning a promotion to the elusive Upstairs where the true telemarketing stars work. They're even given their very own, exclusive elevator and plenty of special treatment, including an incredible pay increase. The new life is golden, but comes at a price. In this dystopian, otherworldly version of present day Oakland, the city is in up in arms over a local corporation known as WorryFree. The company, under the leadership of Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), is a giant manufacturer that specializes in offering its employees free housing and food in exchange for a lifetime commitment, a sort-of present day slavery.
It's hard to truly tell the story of Sorry to Bother You without divulging too much, as the antics of WorryFree's Lift and how Green's new roles transforms him are the meat of the film's true stance on the political and commercial climate. Leaving the theater after the credits roll, this twisted act will be the piece that either inspires you or leaves you scratching your head. It's that crazy of a piece of cinema that makes it difficult to truly decide whether Riley is a genius and the film is a masterpiece, or is he overreaching and throwing too many screws into the machine. The message is loud and very clear. The artistry behind some of the film's more affecting moments is beautiful and almost too in-your-face, but never encroaching.
Outside of the story, the film's cast is what really shines. Tessa Thompson plays Green's girlfriend, Detroit, a burgeoning artist bent on shining a light to the travesties of modern day corporate slavery in the form of her African-related art. As Green works his way up the ladder, very quickly, their relationship is drug through the coals. Detroit's determination to bring peace through anarchy is some of the more enjoyable pieces of the film. Thompson is electric and every bit the budding movie star she's grown into with films and performances like Sorry to Bother You and this year's Annihilation. In fact, the film would have been better to give her even more scenes on which to chew. Hammer, as the hard-nosed pretty boy CEO, is charming in the most evil, frat boy of ways. It's not his most inspiring performance, but he does well to elevate even the most mundane of scenes. Cursed with good looks, it's no wonder Hammer gravitates towards these types of roles. He fits the part almost too well. Danny Glover has a great cameo of a role as a fellow telemarketer and Steven Yeun, Terry Crews, and Jermaine Fowler play imperative supporting roles.
The themes and pace to which Riley commits works most of the time. Besides the crazy third act, the setting in the very similar but surprisingly different world is crafted with extreme care. The news stations and other television programming is so similar to today's crop of entertainment that it feels easily like that dystopia may be on the horizon. There's a grittiness that sets it into the same parallels as other futuristic pieces of cinema, but its message is important and urgent enough to give it a place as commentary on the very real ineptitudes in existence today.
Sorry to Bother You won't be a film you'll watch over and over again, but it's bizarre scenes and eye-popping visuals could become this year's most efficient entry into cult territory. In fact, it'd be interesting to see how this film works with certain lifestyle enhancements in play (i.e. alcohol or edibles).
When the film first premiered, it was immediately put into the mix of early awards season buzz, especially for its screenplay and Stanfield's performance. It doesn't quite check off enough boxes to stick around that long, but it is a worthy enough piece of film to deserve an initial viewing, especially for the sake of the third act and how it can fit into fun discussions of meanings and morality. You won't quite feel like you've wasted your money, but you will leave wondering what the hell you just watched.