Bring in the firebrand to make this dreary summer box office boom louder than the Fourth of July. A verbose, genuinely unpredictable shindig, “Sorry to Bother You” marks the directorial debut of political activist, hip-hop artist and Oakland’s own Boots Riley. Returning to the hometown of his band The Coup, Riley shapes a dystopian reality rooted in recognizable economic strains and familiar locales, choreographing a Marxist soapbox shuffle that never ceases to entertain in its disorderly moves.
The film picks out its proletarian in Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young man living with his activist-artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in a garage underneath his uncle’s (Terry Crews) close-to-foreclosure residence. Behind on rent, Cassius lands a job at the telemarketing hub Regal View, where the salesman protocol is “Problems are opportunities.” Failing to capture the attention of clients, Cassius is advised to use his “white voice” (provided by a weaponized David Cross) over the phone to improve his commercial appeal. Soon enough, he finds himself catapulting upward in the company, leaving his striking co-workers for the debauched domain of his unseen aristocratic overlords.
Kicking off with a turbulent job interview involving an embellished resume, the film immediately plants its characters in commonplace struggles to keep things grounded as it ventures into surreal flourishes and scrappy science fiction. A first-world analogue to Foxconn called Worry Free promises meals, barracks-style housing and “Minions”-esque uniforms for its feudal employees. Vending machines are packed with cans of Soda Cola. The most talked-about program on television is called “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me.”
Even though he’s carving out one of the most outrageous, mean-spirited exaggerations of American culture this side of Paul Verhoeven’s “RoboCop,” Riley manages to be alternatively inscrutable and specific in his satire. Whatever product Regal View sells isn’t articulated, and the telemarketing corporation never resembles more than a self-preserving greaser for the wheels of capitalism.
Meanwhile, the depictions of its workers’ meager livelihoods are both laughable and drop-dead serious. A jovial sequence involving friends bonding while hand-powering a makeshift pulley system of windshield wipers is representative of a recurrent lived-in tactility that doesn’t just demonstrate but also distinguishes their methods of subsistence.
The resourceful design grows more delirious as Cassius’ promotions parallel the rising media and military attention on the Regal View strike. Eventually, the film arrives in the ivory tower, where Cassius meets face-to-face with the beastly Worry Free CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, looking as if one bitcoin-flush Winklevoss twin ate the other). An orgy-hosting, witlessly bigoted dipshit, Lift’s coked-out endgame for his underlings is beyond description, and he wants Cassius attached to his enterprise.
It’s here in the home stretch that things putter out. Approaching each scene with the aesthetic minutiae of crafting an art installation, the film rarely takes a breather to feel out its characters and their unification. The morality play centered around Cassius’ opulence has little drive behind it once it takes center stage, and it leaves things off with a full-circle coda that’s mostly a “gotcha” dead end.
During a pivotal moment halfway through the film, Detroit confronts Cassius on the moral bankruptcy of his careerist mentality, to which he instinctively retorts, “My success has nothing to do with you.” It’s an arresting interaction, directly reckoning with the comforts of complicity, and it’s one that the plot’s resolutions could be more sharply honed around.
Lopsided and trippy as “Sorry to Bother You” is, what ultimately resonates is its clear-eyed sobriety, always keeping in focus the injustice in the crack of a police baton, the wave of gentrification generated by Silicon Valley’s cannonball, the unfair spectacle that comes with Black Americans’ success and the sinister instincts behind espousing “civility.”
Anything but concise, it’s the type of first feature that’s unapologetically overcome by its vivid imagery and confident ideas. It’s an eruption so profuse and exhausting that one wonders if its creator even has another movie left in him, but one should require no further persuasion if Riley has more stories to tell.
“Sorry to Bother You” opens at California Theatre on Thursday.