If you’ve been pining for the return of unruly, politically charged provocations like Wild in the Streets and Putney Swope, Boots Riley is here to make your moviegoing year. With Sorry to Bother You, the first-time filmmaker has taken the shopworn cautionary tale of the ambitious young professional who doesn’t realize he’s sold out until it’s too late, and turned it into an absurdist sociopolitical satire that’s by turns hilarious and horrifying. Set in present day Oakland, California, the film combines the dizzying visual invention of a Spike Lee joint with the hallucinatory playfulness of a Spike Jonze flick. At a Sundance Film Festival where too many of the selections feel like conventional fare that would’ve been greenlit by a studio in 1998, Riley’s film is right on time.
The film kicks off with Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) nearly blowing a job interview at a telemarketing office. The manager hires him anyway because the basic qualifications are a pulse and a voice. Cash desperately needs the gig to put a dent into the back rent he owes to his Uncle Sergio (Terry Crews), whose garage he’s currently occupying with his performance artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). When he’s not pestering people at home with clumsily scripted solicitations, Cash hangs with his crew and dreams of bigger things, like getting kicked upstairs to become a “Power Caller” (where, his sleazeball supervisor explains, “the callers are ballers”).
When it looks like Cash won’t be able to cut it as a regular caller, his African-American co-worker, Langston (Danny Glover), recommends that he put on his white voice. After goofing on the idea, Cash conjures up his inner white man, and what comes out sounds an awful lot like David Cross (because it is David Cross). It may look bizarre (it took a scene or two for me to get used to the approach), but the technique is wildly successful (another black colleague talks like Patton Oswalt, so basically there’s nothing whiter than stand-up comics born and raised in the American South). Suddenly, Cash starts racking up sales left and right, and, after a sustained period of success, he joins the ranks of the power callers.
Cash’s rapid ascendance is distressing to his work friends. They’re in the midst of a unionization effort (an unwelcome complication for the company’s parent conglomerate WorryFree), and they’re counting on his support as they go on strike. But becoming a Power Caller hasn’t merely gotten Cash out of debt; it’s bought him designer threads, a sexy new car and a snazzy new apartment. Even better, he’s caught the eye of WorryFree’s visionary CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who, as a broad caricature of today’s Silicon Valley superstars, is almost as evil as Peter Thiel.
Riley wisely hews to narrative convention as a means of anchoring his surreal vision of our modern world. The most popular show on television is a reality show called “I Just Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me”, in which participants go on camera to have their ass brutally handed to them (that’s actually not only plausible, but exists and is called YouTube). Meanwhile, Detroit debuts her magnum opus, a performance piece which calls for audience members to pelt her with broken cell phones, bullets and balloons filled with sheep’s blood while she repeatedly reenacts Faith Prince’s big scene from Barry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. And then there’s Lift, who, when he’s not hoovering up a foot-long line of blow to the awestruck delight of his party guests, is attempting to genetically engineer a half-human/half-horse workforce.
Though Cash reassures his friends he stands with them philosophically, and wishes them the best in their unionization efforts, he continues to cross the picket line because, in his mind, his success is entirely separate from their struggle. He’s finally roused from his sell-out slumber when a protestor whacks him in the head with a Coke can – the video of which goes viral, thus earning the protestor a commercial deal so lucrative she could, according to a newscaster, afford to buy four white babies. That extra baby detail gets a huge laugh, but it’s tinged with real fury; as we’ve seen time and again, even the purest act of righteousness can be co-opted if the check has enough zeroes.
The film eventually segues from satiric to sincere, turning into a call to arms for young progressives still reeling from the failure of Occupy and Bernie. I’m not sure this works, but I admire Riley’s willingness to take a side, especially after two decades of South Park preaching the gospel of indifference. Riley may come on like a goofball, but at heart he’s a brawler. He’s not trying to skillfully outpoint his opponents; he’s out there headhunting. He’s also a ferociously talented filmmaker, who, at the age of forty-six, is just getting warmed up. Boots Riley is a dangerous man. He’s just what the American cinema needs in 2018.