- Title: Sorry to Bother You
- Written and directed by: Boots Riley
- Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson and Armie Hammer
- Classification: 18A; 105 minutes
Sorry to Bother You, the feature debut of writer-director Boots Riley, and the no-contest wildest comedy of the season, will keep your mind busy for weeks.
As you attempt to dissect its views on race, class, capitalism, entertainment and everything else that makes up the gunk of everyday Western existence, a small piece of advice: Do so while playing Sorry to Bother You in the background. Not the film, but the 2012 album of the same name. That record, by veteran fun-punk-hip-hop group The Coup, is as bouncy and unruly as Riley’s movie – which makes sense, since before he turned to filmmaking, Riley headed up the socially conscious Oakland, Calif.-based band, and produced the album in hopes of kick-starting interest in his loosely related screenplay.
There isn’t one perfect skeleton key to be found on Sorry to Bother You (the album) that unlocks Sorry to Bother You (the film), but the lyrics to Your Parents’ Cocaine come close: “Your daddy’s got a business plan / Which made wars in Afghanistan / It bought your house in Bangkok and / Your parents’ cocaine.” That verse might sound like an unnecessarily moody, deep-in-the-dark Neil Young riff on the total absurdity of war, maaaaan, but as delivered by Justin Sane (of Black Flag fame) and set against an infectious, kazoo-backed beat, it captures everything Sorry to Bother You (both the film and album) is about: sharp social critique disguised by a wry, candy-coated packaging. Riley’s work is as infectiously goofy as it is deadly serious.
Riley’s film opens in a barely alternate-world version of Oakland. The economy is in the dumps, everyone’s favourite TV show is about people getting assaulted to near-death and a giant corporation called Worry Free bases its business model on a sort of gentrified form of slave labour. Barely getting by in this hell is Lakeith Stanfield’s Cassius Green (say it quickly), who wastes his days oversleeping in his uncle’s garage. Facing eviction and possible separation from his performance-artist girlfriend (Tessa Thompson), Cassius gets a lucky break thanks to a telemarketing job at Worry Free. At first, he flounders, until a co-worker (Danny Glover) urges him to use his “white voice … but not your Will Smith voice,” on sales calls. Now equipped with the high-pitched and chippy vocal chords of David Cross (Glover’s character adopts Steve Buscemi’s nasally whine), Cassius quickly becomes a “power caller,” and finds himself caught in a plot to create a centaur-based work-force/military.
Sorry to Bother You is more bizarre than even that brief synopsis reads, which is part of its significant charms. By employing a relatively straight-forward hero arc – Cassius starts off as a ne’er-do-well, becomes a reluctant do-gooder and finally takes a courageous stand in the face of corporate evil – and asking his cast to play it mostly straight, Riley creates a delightfully disturbing mirror image of our own toxic culture. The cracks are everywhere, but few of the characters have the strength any more to blink.
As Riley takes aim at myriad targets, not every hit lands with intended precision. Armie Hammer, for instance, pops up toward the end as Worry Free’s CEO, a raucous hybrid of Elon Musk and Scarface’s Tony Montana. Constantly snorting coke and waving around a gun like an index finger, Hammer leans into the comedy hard, but to a point past satire and edging into self-parody. Also wobbly is Steven Yeun’s side character, Squeeze, a pro-union co-worker of Cassius’s who feels awkwardly, well, squeezed into the proceedings.
But these are small problems when weighed against a furious and exhausting vision. Riley arrives at his work armed with serious ideas, and ideals. Turn up the volume on Sorry to Bother You – both the film and the music – and lose yourself in Riley’s deeply funny exercises in unmitigated anger.
Sorry to Bother You opens July 13