Far be it from me to fault a film for having too many good ideas, but, my oh my, does writer/director Boots Riley’s feature debut ever have it going on. It is almost distractingly original, even if that overly busy nature also holds it back from five-star greatness. It’s as though Riley wanted to make sure he left no stone unthrown.
The film is set in a day-after-tomorrow America, the sort of economic wasteland that might have been imagined if a time warp had allowed Jonathan Swift, George Orwell and Mike Judge to collaborate on a screenplay.
Lakeith Stanfield – the “Get Out!” guy from Get Out – stars as Cassius Green, trying to keep a roof over his head in Oakland without getting “hired” by WorryFree, an outfit that offers free clothing, food, accommodation and a job for life. The nearest thing to it in our reality is prison.
Cassius – “Cash” for short – gets a job as a telemarketer, and quickly learns that he makes more sales if he adopts a “white voice.” David Cross provides the voice, in a technique that sounds like magical overdubbing. Cash’s success propels him to a higher floor and a more lucrative job, overseen by a mysterious boss with a bowler hat, an eye patch and his own white voice; body of Omari Hardwick, vocals by Patton Oswalt.
In an odd coincidence, this summer features another white-voice movie, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, in which a black police officer in Colorado infiltrates the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan over the phone. Although the conceit is hardly new; African-Americans have long used their white voices to skirt racist reactions, and 1969’s Putney Swope featured a black character played by Arnold Johnson and dubbed by writer/director Robert Downey, Sr.
In this movie, Danny Glover’s character explains that the white voice is “what they wish they sounded like … what they think they should sound like.” And before you ask, yes, he also gets to say he’s too old for this shit.
Cash’s new job soon puts him at odds with his activist/artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and with his coworkers, especially Squeeze (Steven Yeun), who is trying to start a union, and organizes a labour stoppage. (Riley’s own left-wing politics deeply inform many aspects of the story.)
All this and I haven’t even gotten to Armie Hammer, who comes with a white voice pre-installed and plays a freewheeling CEO. The man is introduced inhaling a veritable Maginot Line of cocaine; later, he gets the guests – most of them white – at his house party to chant “Rap! Rap! Rap!” at the discomfited Cassius. If that makes you queasy, wait till you hear his rapping response, unprintable here.
There are things going on in the film’s second half that are barely hinted at in the first, and I’d be remiss to bring them up. Suffice to say that Sorry to Bother You features some surprises.
It also mixes humour with trenchant political commentary and a lo-fi aesthetic that recalls the cinematography of Michel Gondry and the wit of Charlie Kaufman; I swear, the 7 1/2 floor from Being John Malkovich could nestle comfortably between the storeys where Cash and his colleagues work.
The media-saturated film is similarly stoked with bizarre satirical jokes. The most popular TV show in this weird world is a money-for-pain game show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me, while a runner-up features proud WorryFree residents showing off their cells – sorry; homes – à la MTV’s Cribs.
But there’s also just plain goofy humour, as when Cassius and one of his workmates have an angry “good day”-off that is both unerringly polite and on the verge of becoming a brawl. It’s easy to get a kick from this kind of comedy, but beware – the movie’s politics may give you a very different kind of kick when you least expect it.
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