It's hard to describe Sorry To Bother You, Boots Riley's feature directorial debut, without using hand gestures. It's the kind of movie you can't feel neutral about. You either hate it, in which case you'll want to expansively express that distaste, or you'll love it, and there are not enough dramatic arm twirls to get your point across.
I fall in the latter camp. Riley, a musician and artist best known as a member of political hip-hop group The Coup, has written and directed a work that's deliciously bonkers, and yet so relevant in the issues it seeks to tackle: politics, race, economic disparity, and gender dynamics. With a run time of an hour and 45 minutes, it's a fast-paced wild ride that feels frenetic and energised, but also deeply controlled. Riley knows where he wants to go, and he'll let us get there in whatever way works best— but we'll get there nonetheless.
At its most basic level, Sorry To Bother you is a workplace comedy, with clear echoes of Office Space, and its British (then US) successor, The Office. It's as if Dunder Mifflin was plucked from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and dropped into dystopian Oakland, with Lakeith Stanfield's Cassius Green as our protagonist. The opening scene sets the tone, as Cassius gets caught lying during a job interview at Regalview Telemarketing (he brought a fake homemade Employee of the Month trophy, for effect). In true Michael Scott fashion, however, his prospective manager is impressed with Cassius' level of commitment and initiative, and gives him the job anyway. “Stick to the script," he says, citing Regalview's motto that we hear repeated over and over again throughout the film. "S.T.T.S."
And for a while, Cassius does just that. His performance artist fiancée Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is glad that he's employed — a job that comes with the perk of working with his best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), and new pal Squeeze (Steve Yeun), an aspiring labor organiser who wants to unionise RegalView.
And you know what? Cassius is pretty good at this telemarketing stuff. After a rough first couple of calls, he gets some life-changing advice from veteran caller Langston (Danny Glover), who sits in the next cubicle: "Use your white voice."
It's a conceit that's been gaining traction in pop culture — the idea that people of colour become more palatable if they alter their diction and speech patterns to sound white — and Riley uses it playfully. When Cassius is using his "white voice," Stanfield's voice is dubbed over with comedian David Cross'. It's almost cartoonish in execution, but it works.
On its own, this could make for a fun movie. The intrusive nature of telemarketing is telegraphed by having Cassius literally crash into people's houses, desk and all, interrupting everything from dinner to sex. I would happily have watched a movie about his striving to become a "power caller," the ultimate RegalView telemarketer status that earns its standard-bearer a private gold elevator ride to an exclusive floor in the building.
But Riley isn't letting us off that easy. As Cassius rises through the ranks, the products he's peddling get more problematic RegalView is owned by called WorryFree, a semi-cultish company peddling contractual slavery in exchange for room, board, and the promise of never having to stress out about bills ever again. Its CEO, coke-snorting, sarong-wearing, grandiose bro Steve Lift (played with visible glee by Armie Hammer) has built his empire on forced labor — and he wants Cassius to help him sell that.
WorryFree, the corporate answer to modern problems (stress! anxiety! responsibility! picking out clothes in the morning!) is just one of the ways Riley builds the Sorry To Bother You world. Televisions cut to ads for the company in the background of scenes, right in the middle of a fictional game show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me. It's a world that's Black Mirror meets magical realism: It takes real, troubling issues and pushes them to their most absurd extremes. The Oakland of Sorry To Bother You looks like present-day Oakland, but with magical elements that make it feel like it exists in a universe of its own.
I won't spoil any more of the plot, which deserves to be experienced, not explained, save to point out that Riley has assembled a stellar cast of characters, with nearly all Black leads. Thompson lights up the screen as Detroit. Her sorbet-coloured hair and massive earrings spelling out "Murder" and "Kill," combined with a T-shirt that screams: "The Future is Female Ejaculation," are the perfect counterpoint to Stanfield's quiet (to the point of near-passivity) but impeccably timed humour. She's no marginal fiancée trope in service to Cassius' plot, and for that matter, neither is Squeeze, the rare Asian-American character who gets elevated to potential love interest status.
To say that Sorry To Bother You is 100% enjoyable is a lie. The performances — Stanfield and Thompson's in particular — are fantastic, and the score, by Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards is super-charged. But Riley isn't here to please — there are scenes that will make you cringe low in your seat, squirming with discomfort, while others will provoke gasps and open-mouthed shock. That's fine. Give in to it. The best part of Sorry To Bother You is that it feels unlike anything else, an almost DIY labor of love (the seams show, but it feels intended) with a message that packs a punch. Sometimes it's messy, and it's often weird, but it's always riveting.
Sorry To Bother You is in UK cinemas 7th December 2018