Director Boots Riley fearlessly explores the intersection between economic necessity and racial identity. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
Selling out is the new American Dream. For a chance at the good life, someone will sell their idea, their soul and, in the case of the new satire “Sorry to Bother You,” their own racial identity. The debut feature from director Boots Riley starts weird and ends with an all-out descent into madness. It’s the sort of audacious satire that isn’t afraid to make everyone angry, even the target audience.
Our hero, Cassius “Cash” Green (the remarkable Lakeith Stanfield), would do anything to make it big. He hits the mean streets of Oakland every day, looking for a way to support himself and his girlfriend, a politically charged performance artist named Detroit (Tessa Thompson). It’s not exactly easy for a young black man with no experience to land a cushy job, which means Cash will need to take a few shortcuts to climb the corporate ladder.
The only company that will hire him is Regalview Telemarketing — the soulless marketing firm that sells a nonsensical service called Worry Free Living Solutions. After a few ineffective days in the call center trying to comply with the office mantra, “Stick to the Script,” a desperate Cash gets some advice from a veteran telemarketer (Danny Glover).
“Use your white voice.”
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This is where things start to come unhinged.
You see, Cash doesn’t just adopt a white voice … his voice is literally overdubbed by a white actor (“Tobias Fünke” himself, David Cross). This bizarre device never fails to get a laugh or punctuate the absurdity of Cash’s meteoric rise after embracing his white alter ego. As his bank account and ego explode, Cash alienates Detroit, loses his connection to the community and discovers the sinister hidden plan behind Worry Free Living Solutions.
Drawing from influences as diverse as Spike Lee, Michel Gondry and Mike Judge, Riley fearlessly explores the intersection between economic necessity and racial identity. Cash can enjoy unfettered access to his wildest dreams. All it requires is the ultimate sellout … subverting everything that defines him.
The frantic pacing and sheer volume of ideas is almost overwhelming. So overwhelming, in fact, that Riley loses control of his own story. Sputtering subplots divert attention from Cash’s moral dilemma, and the film’s final confrontation feels a bit too convenient for a plot this complicated.
Still, Riley’s provocative vision demands attention. Much like Jordan Peele’s dazzling “Get Out,” you can enjoy “Sorry to Bother You” without catching all of the social subtext. It works fine as an outrageous comedy, but the perceptive commentary will likely give it staying power. This is the fearless satire that America desperately needs right now.
★★★½ “Sorry to Bother You,” with Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Danny Glover. Written and directed by Boots Riley. 105 minutes. Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use. Opens July 13 at multiple theaters.