T he wonderfully named Boots Riley is the lead vocalist of the rap group, The Coup, whose 2012 album bears the same name as his debut film. Sorry To Bother You revolves around the subject of the tenth track of that album, Cassius Green. How strongly Cassius of the song resembles Cassius of the film I can’t be sure, as I have yet to listen to the album. Still, I imagine a pop record from six years ago, no matter how well produced, can only act as a mild supplement to this maddeningly imaginative cavalcade of wild satire and absurdist metaphors that clearly borrows from the lunacy of intervening years.
Lakeith Stanfield of last year’s race horror-satire, Get Out, stars as Cassius “Cash” Green, a down-and-out slacker who gets a job telemarketing. He lives in a garage under the house of his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews) with his radical activist/artist girlfriend, Detroit (the excellent Tessa Thompson). After a seasoned co-worker (Danny Glover) advises Cash to use his “white voice” to make more sales, his career blossoms, and he’s promoted to power caller while his friends and loved ones struggle beneath him. Soon he’s in the market of selling practical slave labor to a vile businessman named Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), whose imposition of inhumane working conditions in factories pales in comparison to the apocalyptic plans he has in store.
The comedic elements expected to come from this premise work great, especially in using noted stand-ups David Cross and Patton Oswalt for the white voices. In addition, the dialog between the leads, even when it is inconsequential banter, incites a slew of laughter with chemistry abounding. However, the film occasionally runs into somewhat of a problem by being oversaturated with concepts ranging from witty and provocative to outright nonsensical. For any of you who watched the race satire Dear White People from a few years back, these problems might be familiar. The fact that the writer-director has a lot to say with little time to say it shines through. In DWP, the amount of characters and storylines Justin Simien tried to include in the runtime of an independent feature muddled things considerably. When the film was remade into a Netflix series, everything benefitted. The characters seemed more authentic and the plots more carefully written. I suspect that Sorry To Bother You would benefit greatly from a similar reimagining.
The points Boots Riley makes about the concealment of black identity, social mobility, and exploitation hit the nail right on the head, but other observations such as the vapidity of the media and shallowness of the upper class feel tired and cliched. Plus, they all compete for the spotlight, making it hard to see the forest through the trees. However, there exists a strong sense that much of the wackiness of the film merely reflects Riley’s unfettered creativity and ought not to be made too much of. If one steps outside the figurative world of the film, the resulting sci-fi black comedy works perfectly fine. Even if you can’t see the whole forest, a tree or two still looks nice. | Nic Champion