Ambition is a wonderful thing in a filmmaker, but sometimes it can get out of hand. Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” is a case in point; his imagination—and anger—outstrip any sense of discipline. While Riley’s aim is daring and occasionally spot-on, the general heavy-handedness and scattershot approach make for a movie that winds up rather a mess of half-baked ideas and ham-fisted execution.
The picture is a brash, unwieldy satire about divisions of race and class in an exaggerated version of contemporary American society. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is one of many unemployed in Oakland, California, living with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), an artist specializing in signs, in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage. He hasn’t paid rent for months, and his uncle might lose the house, so the situation is pretty desperate.
That’s why he concocts an impressive resumé to get a job at a telemarketing firm. His scam is quickly unmasked but he’s hired anyway; they’ll take on anybody who can read—and follow—the preordained script to sell their encyclopedias.
After some initial failures—portrayed amusingly as Green literally descends, desk and all, into his marks’ houses—Cassius is advised by his cube-mate (Danny Glover) to “use his white voice,” and (as dubbed by David Cross) his proves amazingly persuasive (although in truth it’s his pitches, rather than his pitch, that really seem important). His success is applauded by his supervisor (Michael X. Sommers), who tells him that he’s headed upstairs to the exclusive floor of “power callers” where, under the tutelage of a snappy mentor (Jermaine Fowler), he becomes an even greater selling star.
All of which distances himself from his old colleagues below, where before his promotion he’d been recruited by Squeeze (Steven Yeun), a professional organizer, to unionize the staff. He’ll even cross the picket line when they strike, at one point getting bonked with a soda can in an incident that goes viral after it’s streamed online. (Absurdly, it gives rise to a cultish following that dons fake Afros with cans protruding from them.)
Eventually Green comes to the attention of Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the chief honcho of the Worry Free Corporation, which runs a scheme that’s tantamount to modern slavery: it offers grubby room and board in return for a long-term work contract. Lift wants Green to join his team, but Cassius accidentally learns that it actually involves the literal remaking of the workforce via genetic manipulation, and tries to get the word out by agreeing to appear on the nation’s premier television show—a humiliating opus called “I Got the S**t Kicked Out of Me,” which requires him to get beaten up and submerged in excrement before delivering his warning. Naturally the powers-that-be take corrective action in response to his allegations.
As the above makes clear, Riley is taking on variety of issues here, but while race is certainly one of the larger ones, the overarching theme is a vaguely Marxist—or at least socialist—assault on the cruelties of unfettered capitalism. There is, on the one hand, the wealthy, powerful elite on their top floors, and the benumbed lumpenproletariat on the lower ones, who are kept drugged on trash like the aforementioned TV program and persuaded by a constant barrage of advertisements that a form of voluntary servitude to the system is the way out of sheer misery. They have to be made aware of their plight by a few far-sighted leaders, whether union organizers or radical protestors, if they are not to become literal beasts of burden.
But there are other targets as well. Detroit’s form of performance art, for example, is treated as an invitation to ridicule, and so is television as a medium for stultifying the brain as well as well as promoting propaganda. And of course the influence of “social media” is all too easily painted as absurd. As for telemarketing, that may be entirely too easy a target even to merit mentioning, but the movie thinks it’s worth taking on as well.
Riley fires away at all these, and others besides, with a sense of abandon that borders on sheer anarchy. Inevitably he lands a few hits close to the bull’s-eye, but more often than not the result comes across as a chaotic burst of righteous indignation that’s not so much funny as strange. The cast give their all to the picture, but they’re hamstrung by the material rather than liberated by it; by going off on so many tangents, the satire loses focus and force.
Nor is the technical execution especially smooth. Doug Emmett’s cinematography is drab, and Terel Gibson’s editing allows the pacing to slacken too often. The last act, there are some animated effects that are pretty good in a crude, homespun way.
There sharp moments in “Sorry to Bother You,” but as the film lumbers on they become fewer and increasingly isolated. Our society may be going to hell in a handbasket, but it will take satire more clever and pointed than Riley’s to help reverse the decline. His movie is more notable for its passion than its impact.