*NOTE: This is an edited reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival.*
If you know the name Boots Riley then you know his rap group, The Coup, and the pro-black anti-establishment message that became one of their hallmarks. Riley brings that same attitude, and The Coup’s funky baselines, to his bizarre, overly-stuffed satire Sorry to Bother You, which is like Livin’ Large, Hollywood Shuffle, and Putney Swope all rolled into one.
Plus an army of genetically altered….well, I’ll keep that a secret or the studios will fillet me.
Suffice it to say there are a lot of unexpected surprises in the oddball reality Riley has created. It’s like the freakazoid cherry atop a satirical sundae of racism, gentrification, capitalism, slavery, and good old fashioned selling out to the man. Lakeith Stanfield plays Cassius Green, an Oakland native who we meet as he’s trying to bullshit his way into a much-needed job. If it were anything else the lies he’s caught telling would get him thrown out, but it’s only a telemarketing gig. “You have initiative, and you can read”, he’s told by his new boss. Cassius doesn’t care about the super low expectations, he just needs the work. He’s living out of his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage along with his activist/artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), who ekes out a living twirling signs on street corners.
Cassius sucks at his job, though, at least in the beginning. With every cold call he gets a quick hang-up, which is no way to make money at a commissions-based job. Plus, there’s the promise of becoming a Power Caller, the elite big money earners who sit atop the corporate structure. They even have their own elevator. Everything startst to turn around for Cassius when a veteran caller (Danny Glover) tells him to use his white voice. “Not Will Smith white”, he says. It’s about projecting confidence, and that Cassius’ white voice sounds a lot like David Cross (because it is David Cross) seems to work because soon he’s racking up sales and becoming a Power Caller.
All of this comes at the chagrin of Detroit and Cassius’ buddies who are trying to force his employer to give them better wages. In essence, the film is a simple story of a guy selling out his friends and everything he holds dear for the promise of wealth and power. But did I mention WorryFree yet? Riley’s commentary on slavery and capitalism involves WorryFree, a company that promises three meals a day and a place to live (“Three hots and a cot”) for a lifetime of employment. They’re all the rage and CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, in gonzo territory) is one of the most powerful men in the country. He takes a liking to Cassius and helps him rise up the corporate ladder, which leads to other bizarre occurrences. As Cassius slips further into becoming an Uncle Tom, a hilarious bit has him forced by Lift into rapping, to which he entertains the all-white crowd with a chorus of “Nigga shit!!” to rapturous ovation. This after Lift tries to entice Cassius to tell gangsta stories because all black people must have them.
Anyone who has heard The Coup’s lyrics knows Riley has a lot to get off his chest, but he unloads too much of it here. I haven’t even gotten to his commentary on the media and our YouTube generation, which finds Cassius going viral when an activist’s soda can hits him on the head. The most popular TV show is ” I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me” which is exactly as the title suggests. And still we haven’t come close to those horse/human hybrids. There’s just so much to wade through that the film doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, stuck as Riley gets sidetracked with a brand new observation.
For his debut feature, Riley already has more creativity and style than directors with ten times his experience. In an early scene, as Cassius is failing miserably to make sales, each of his calls finds him magically transported into the homes of those he’s disrupting. And of course he’s calling at the worst times; a couple having sex, an older woman dealing with her husband’s cancer diagnosis. Riley peppers each scene with enough sight gags and visual cues to warrant a second viewing, and they help set up a crackpot world where we aren’t completely shocked by the sudden introduction of something truly freakish into the narrative. Why and how they exist is something best discovered on your own because it’s just another notch on the wacko scale.
Sorry to Bother You shows Riley to be a filmmaker with a ton of promise. He has a point of view, something to say, and a distinct way of saying it. What I’m torn about is whether or not he needs to narrow the focus to make clearer points. As long as Boots keeps being Boots I’m going to be intrigued to see what his future as a director holds.