There’s a moment early in the third act of Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You” when the writer-director crosses a line.
It’s not the line, but only because there are several borders to increasingly absurd territory over the film’s runtime. It’s not completely non-sequitor, because anything less might stall the plot’s exponentially batshit crazy momentum.
And you can’t quite argue against it, because it’s a plot development that might hue quite close to normalcy—at least that’s what we come to believe after spending some time in Riley’s head.
The story of Cassius Green’s – an arresting, rising star performance by Lakeith Stanfield – ascent through a capitalistic system on the strength of his “white man voice” is one of 2018’s most original offerings so far, and certainly its most unpredictable (though almost by default). There’s no shortage of warnings rooted in this dystopian Oakland, but in a way Riley is also bearing the message: “Guys, we’re not heading here. We are here. I know this looks crazy, but for real, wake up.”
Cassius, or Cash, is struggling, but don’t mistake that for not being driven. He just wants a job to be able to get by. But he also seeks validation in a corporate world where the best chance at a living might be via Worry Free Living, a company that converges labor and life to the point of expected mayhem.
Regal View Telemarketing offers him an opportunity, one he makes the most of. And before too long, Riley’s film shape-shifts from surreal comedy to an all-too-real commentary on the gears that turn modern society, one with legitimately thought-provoking ideas.
If “Sorry To Bother You” avoids one thing with all its cosmic might, it’s subtlety. For some that’ll prove to be the film’s undoing, at a point of no return when his demented, dogmatic Picasso of a film becomes Salvador Dali on psychedelics.
But it’s also going to prove to be a root of real conversations after a first viewing, whether with yourself or with whoever you choose to see it with. Even with its uneven pacing, Cassius’s simultaneous rise through the ranks and spiral through greedy, macabre corporate hell presents our own society’s steroid-induced systems, though not without some glimmers of hope for the entities working to resist it.
If those satiric themes sound a bit like ones we’ve seen on the big screen before, it’s because they are, and fairly recently too. Some scenes could have passed for outtakes of last year’s landmark “Get Out,” or a punk imitation of yesterdecade’s increasingly relevant “Children of Men.”
However – aside from its deliriously tres-fou machinations, ones injected with urban flair by Doug Emmett behind the camera – an eloquently kickass cast helps give “Sorry To Bother You” an identity all its own. Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Omari Hardwick and others all provide seductive performances—they’re equal parts warming and tantalizing. It’s a testament to Riley’s direction that they not only avoid becoming unrecognizable in a world that gets quirkier by the minute, but increasingly more sympathetic as things careen even more off the rails.
Also: Make sure to check the entire cast list after watching; it’s a guarantee Riley snagged even more stars than you realize after an initial viewing.
“Sorry To Bother You” isn’t without some fat on its bones, and there’s something to be said about Riley’s insistence to blare his intentions through a megaphone. But his (hopefully first of many) film is one that demands attention, and almost feels destined not to receive it until some years down the road.
He’s challenging all normal conventions – hell, everyone involved is – and the result is something to take serious stock of. Through neon swatches of hyperrealism he’s presenting a parable that (terrifyingly) feels more familiar the more absurd it gets.
Then again, that might make “Sorry To Bother You” the perfect kind of cinematic endeavor for the absurd times we live in.
“Sorry to Bother You” is rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and drug use
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick
Directed by Boots Riley