In a multiplex universe dominated by remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels and derivative mainstream fare, we raise a glass to “Sorry to Bother You” for pushing the envelope, pushing the buttons on incendiary topics, and pushing the boundaries of conventional storytelling.
This movie is bat-bleep crazy even as it makes solid and thought-provoking arguments. It veers all over the place, at times scoring major laughs, on occasion working quite well as a social satire and a screwball romance. But it also falters with some running jokes that stumble and collapse, and a few cringe-inducing scenes that aim for provocation but seem forced.
On balance, though, writer-director Boots Riley and the risk-taking ensemble cast deliver a unique and offbeat and weird and memorable blend of comedy, fantasy and sci-fi wackiness.
Lakeith Stanfield is so versatile and has such chameleon-like qualities that his emergence as one the most electrifying actors in recent years has kinda sneaked up on us. (Or at least me.)
Stanfield played civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson in “Selma” and he was uncanny as Snoop Dogg in “Straight Outta Compton” and he is Darius on the groundbreaking TV series “Atlanta” AND he was the guy with the straw hat and the thousand-yard stare in “Get Out” — and now he has the chance to carry a film with his lead performance in “Sorry to Bother You,” and he knocks it out of the park.
Stanfield plays Oakland resident Cassius Green, a likable and smart and goodhearted guy who hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, professionally speaking. Cassius and his life-force of a starving-artist girlfriend Detroit (the wonderful Tessa Thompson) live in the garage — not an apartment ABOVE a garage, but the actual garage — of the house owned by Cassius’ uncle Sergio (Terry Crews), who is facing his own financial struggles and is on the verge of losing his home. Detroit believes in Cassius and is emotionally invested in their future together, but at some point Cassius is going to have to fulfill his potential, or it’s gonna be goodbye, Detroit.
When Cassius lands a “job” at a gigantic telemarketing firm called RegalView that pays only commission and offers no benefits, it hardly seems like a game-changer, especially because Cassius is terrible at making sales — until a wise veteran played by Danny Glover tells Cassius to use his “white voice” when making his sales pitch. All of a sudden, Cassius is a better closer than Mariano Rivera in his prime.
Granted, the black-guy-doing-the-white-guy-voice is a tired bit by now. How many stand-ups over how many years have done variations on that routine? But “Sorry to Bother You” acknowledges that even while running with it. When Cassius affects his white-guy voice, it’s a tremendously obvious overdub, with David Cross reciting the lines as Stanfield mouths the dialogue. (Patton Oswalt does the white-guy line readings for another male character, while Lily James is the white-gal vocal stand-in when Detroit invokes a Caucasian delivery.)
Boom! Just like that, Cassius Green (as in “Cash is green”) becomes a superstar at the firm and is elevated, literally and figuratively, to the status of “power caller,” joining the elite telemarketers on the higher floor and quickly scoring multi-million-dollar deals. The transactions are highly illegal and morally repugnant, but Cassius is having such a great time enjoying his newfound success he can’t be bothered with such trivial concerns.
In the meantime, Detroit becomes increasingly passionate about the labor movement at RegalView, spearheaded by union organizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun), who clearly has a thing for Detroit. And the more we learn about RegalView’s primary client, a “lifestyle” company called WorryFree that offers to ease one’s financial burdens via a contract that sentences you to a lifetime of what is essentially prison labor, the more we hope Cassius will wipe the dollar signs from his eyes and focus on what’s really important.
Riley peppers in sight gags about a popular game show in which one person slaps the &$@* out of another person, and a viral video showing a protester hurling a can of soda at her target and knocking him senseless. True, we live in a world where a show like that could be a ratings champion and a video like that could garner tens of millions of views, but neither running joke is particularly well executed.
Much more … interesting … are the scenes featuring Armie Hammer as WorryFree founder Steve Lift — a smug, blandly handsome, casually racist megalomaniac whose fascination with horses extends to places so insane and so horrific you’ll barely believe your eyes. (Let’s put it this way: When Cassius comes to realize the extent of Steve Lift’s madness, it’s fair to say even Stanfield’s character in “Get Out” would be shocked by what Stanfield’s character in “Sorry to Bother You” encounters.)
It’s easy and certainly not inaccurate to compare “Sorry to Bother You” to “Get Out,” in that both films are lower-budget hybrid satires from talented directors who take sharp jabs at race relations in America while also dishing out outrageous laughs and bloody shock moments. While I didn’t find the former as accomplished and memorable as the latter, “Sorry to Bother You” stands on its own as a welcome slap to the senses.
Annapurna Pictures presents a film written and directed by Boots Riley. Rated R (for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use). Running time: 105 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC River East and Cinemark Evanston.