The directorial debut of Boots Riley, Sorry To Bother You is a delirious satire about, among other things, the sacrifice and self-compromise required to make a success of yourself in present-day America.
Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), ironically known as Cash, is broke and living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend, free spirit Detroit (Tessa Thompson). When he does manage to find employment, it’s as a telemarketer selling some unknown commodity – possibly encyclopedias – on a commission-only basis. Riley’s inventiveness becomes apparent in having Cash literally drop in on the people he cold calls; whether they’re having dinner with their family or, well, doing anything else.
Struggling to make ends meet with the Stick To The Script approach, Cash is helped by an old hand (Danny Glover), who helps to unlock his “white person voice” (David Cross). The newfound freedom and confidence that grants Cash opens new avenues to him, setting him on the track to power caller status and with it a whole new way of life… but at what cost?
As his fellow telemarketers – led by unionist Robin Hood, Squeeze (Steven Yeun) go on strike, Cash’s life is undergoing an upgrade: his boxy old TV splitting in two, a flat-screen expanding out of it; champagne in abundance.
Seamlessly following in a tradition laid down by the likes of Brazil, Office Space, and Idiocracy – Cash’s uncle is played by Terry Crews and the nation’s favourite game-show is I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me – and with the oddball tone of a Charlie Kaufman film, Sorry To Bother You is nevertheless its own beast – a hybrid, if you will – a parable about the difficulty of giving a fuck in a system that seems rigged against you.
Boots has created a vibrant offbeat world just a few, albeit significant degrees, from our own; unique and yet terrifyingly recognisable. Its script was written in 2012, but feels almost Orwellian in its prophecy. Wild-eyed, coke-snorting, Birkenstock-wearing CEO Steve Lift and self-anointed messiah Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) feels less like an aberration than the norm now that Elon Musk is lighting up joints and dispatching unwanted submarines to rescue orphans from caves.
Meanwhile, between this and his role as one of the “colonised” in Get Out, Stanfield has become the face of black experience subsumed by white capitalist society – eager to please, eyes wary, blood seeping from his bandaged head as he unwillingly “raps” in front of a crowd of predominantly white guests. He makes a stark contrast to Detroit, a walking advertisement for female self-empowerment: blocky, sloganeering earrings; avant-garde, socially-minded performance art too weirdly pop-culture specific and pointed to spoil here.
Boots delights in pulling up the garage door to reveal depths and variety of weirdness. In a world that prioritises “efficiencies” over individuality, even in film-making, it’s a refreshing change of pace.