The title of Sorry to Bother You is a misnomer, slyly pitched by first-time director Boots Riley. Best known for his music, Riley makes no apology for bothering audiences in his absurdist inaugural effort but instead has a riot in doing just so. Whilst the more cinema conventional viewer might find this increasingly unconventional brand of satire hard to take, fans of Michel Gondry, Terry Gilliam and even Yorgos Lanthimos are in for a surreal treat.
Plunging into a world that is familiar but fractured in its satirical reflection, Riley challenges contemporary society like it has personally wronged him. Whilst his office space plot draws on Riley’s own career experiences, the buffers that propel his characters this way and that prove all too relatable on deeper levels. This is heightened reality as produced by a director who is aware that his fictional world is only just less sane than our own. Nods to Trump have been paired down but his brand of populist appeal and capitalist greed is resplendently skewered.
A star-making turn puts Lakeith Stanfield front and centre as African-American everyman Cassius ‘Cash’ Green. Whether Cassius’ surname alludes to his initial innocence or the colour of money, his nickname is something of a joke: Cash is wealthy only in name. Comparison to Jordan Peele’s Get Out gains increasing inevitability as Cassius is driven into a career in which his success depends on his ability to assume a Caucasian persona. The job is in telemarketing, with employees required to flog encyclopaedias, and it’s a neat concept that sees Cassius’ desk literally drop into the homes of his prospective clients when they pick up the phone. Three hang ups in and Cassius is advised by a co-worker (Danny Glover’s Langston) to use his ‘white voice’ when selling. Unlike in BlackKKlansman, the ‘white voice’ here is more than intonation; it is absolute self-confidence. ‘Arrested Development’s David Cross is dubbed smartly to capture the effect and the in-story result is a sharp upward trajectory for Cassius.
Symbols, metaphors and witty nomenclature litter Riley’s script, with character names including Squeeze – Steven Yeun’s unionist protestor – and Diana DeBauchery – a brilliantly funny Kate Berlant. Tessa Thompson, meanwhile, is a joy as Cassius’ girlfriend Detroit, so called because her mother wanted her to have ‘an American name’. Success is embodied by a golden elevator, which separates the telemarketers from the ‘power-level’ employees, with the modern exec embodied not by rat-race suits but the sarong-wearing Steve Lift, played with Wolf of Wall Street smarm and arrogance by Armie Hammer. He’s the boss of Worry Free, a company whose answer to working class suffering is to offer them ‘lifetime contracts’ and suck them into slavery.
Besides the consistent and biting humour of the film, the greatest triumph here is the unpredictability of the unfolding events. Twists range from a simple reveal of Cassius and Detroit’s living situation in the opening scene to a complex, and frankly bizarre, shift in the final stretch. As hard hitting as the anti-capitalist currents are throughout the film, this is a superior piece of innovative filmmaking by equal measure. Doug Emmett casts the videography in luminescent purples, whilst a collaboration between Riley’s own hip hop band The Coup and Tune-Yard lifts the action through a terrific score. Creativity thrums through the story’s staging and there’s a winning energy among the well picked cast.
Perhaps Riley does not quite have the editorial panache of Peele yet but his voice is every bit as cinematically dynamic and promises much for the future.