A weird, average guy in a dead-end job. A manic pixie dream girl with multicolored hair and a career as a performance artist. The grip of corporate America. These three things would have you think that “Sorry to Bother You” is the latest release from directors Michael Gondry, Spike Jonze or Cameron Crowe. Instead, it’s from the brilliant mind that created the cleverly titled 2006 song, “BabyLet’sHaveaBabyBeforeBushDoSomethin’Crazy” and 2001 ahead-of-its-time track “5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.”
Writer/Director/Composer Boots Riley, part of the legendary West Coast rap collective The Coup, stitches together Oakland, the poor versus the 1 percent, code switching, capitalism, race and love in under two hours. The mind trip on screen stars LaKeith Stanfield as Cassius “Cash” Green, an unemployed black man who takes a telemarketing job to pay for his rent and to help his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews) save his house. When Green’s older coworker Langston (Danny Glover) teaches him to find his “white voice” (done by David Cross) to make a sale, Green’s career aspects are skyrocketing and his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), joins him at the company.
That’s when things get super weird yet slightly relatable. As Green moves up into a mysterious upper level for “power callers,” his former peers form a union and stage daily walkouts against the company. Should Green stand with his colleagues or should he be thankful to be in a position that affords him new suits, a better car and upward mobility?
“Sorry to Bother You” has the skeleton of a Jonze or Gondry film: a good soundtrack, an otherworldly reality within a contemporary setting and an MPDG. The films’ skewed reflections of romantic comedies and political satire are refreshing as they give audiences a different point of view. Riley steps further into the weirdness, twisting perceptions and movie troupes of how black men and women are portrayed on screen. Green, often calling out such stereotypes throughout the film, isn’t a gangbanger, a drug dealer, an athlete, a sex bomb or a rapper as others who don’t know him perceive him to be. These are brought up by his telemarketing bosses, the elevator that sends Green to the upper level and CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), a guy who thinks that his barbaric actions are for the greater good. Detroit is a political, artistic wild child, and while MPDGs get a bad rap in most movies, it’s so rare that one would be a woman of color that it is like seeing something new.
Riley puts his music in pictures with this film. Those who are not familiar with The Coup may think that “Sorry to Bother You” is even stranger than it is, but knowing their tracks is not a prerequisite for watching it. The soundtrack and score provide the right backdrop. The film is rich in symbolism and commentary on pop culture, the economy and race, and you may have to marinate on what you see before giving it a final grade. (This reviewer needed two days to digest what she saw, and she is a former telemarketer.)
The casting is nearly perfect with Stanfield being the unsure worker who wants what is best for himself but stay truthful. Thompson’s acting as Detroit is the right balance of supportive girlfriend, social rebel and amazing creative, and Hammer applies the right amount of sleaze and empty-headedness. Steven Yeun, Omari Hardwick and Jermaine Fowler also are great in supporting roles.
Riley is keeping the cinema weird in an informative way. Let “Sorry to Bother You” encourage more risk-takers behind the camera, in the writing room and in the music studio. This is a trip like no other, but it may not be for everyone.
Four stars out of five. In theaters.