Much of the pleasure of a festival screening comes when you catch an early glimpse of something that’s certain to be met with adoration upon wide release. A low-budget horror film like Jordan Peele’s Get Out had such glowing word-of-mouth upon its Sundance premiere that it was positioned as a surprising Oscar hopeful. Don’t expect writer / director Boots Riley’s debut Sorry to Bother You — which screened at this week’s South by Southwest — to be met with the same universal admiration. That isn’t to say the film is weak. Quite the contrary, actually. However, Sorry to Bother You is one of the most utterly bonkers and stunningly ambitious comedies this side of Southland Tales.
Set in an alternate, dystopian version of Oakland, California, the story follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield, continuing his stellar run after Get Out and FX’s Atlanta) a disenfranchised thirtysomething who starts a job as a telemarketer. The set for the telemarketing gig, like much of the film’s locations, looks like Terry Gilliam on a budget: cubicles and workspace smashed together to promote maximum volume and minimal comfort.
In fact, conditions are so poor the entire office is on the verge of a full-on revolt, with Cassius primed to play a key role in until he takes the advice of a co-worker (Danny Glover) and employs a “white voice” in his telephonic sales pitches. The white voice is provided by actor/comedian David Cross, whose nasally enthusiasm holds about as much menace as Big Bird. The rest of the film chronicles Cassius’s rise through the corporate ranks, butting heads with the company’s maniacal, coke-snorting CEO (Armie Hammer, clearly having the time of his life) and uncovering a heinous conspiracy that could usher in a terrifying new age of slavery.
For a film whose primary influences seem to be complex, dystopian satires in the vein of Brazil and Southland Tales, Sorry to Bother You’s narrative is relatively straightforward, albeit entirely batshit. This thing has style for days, and newcomer Riley shows a penchant for visual flair that serves to lend genuine thematic resonance as opposed to empty pyrotechnics. Take, for example, a bitterly comic sequence in which bourgeoisie, and entirely white, attendees at Hammer’s dinner party encourage a deeply uncomfortable Cassius to perform a rap for their amusement. Cassius, who’s never rapped a day in his life, is framed in a manner as to highlight his total isolation from the blithe partygoers. To them, his blackness is an amusing trait to gawk at when you’re bored at a party. To Cassius, it’s an ever-present obstacle to overcome.
Almost every sequence is abundant with provocative ideas like those. There’s no doubt Sorry to Bother You is ambitious to a fault. This is a film with much to say about corporate greed, race relations and gentrification, and it often says it all in the same scene. Riley’s film tosses so many ideas into its relatively brief showtime that, at times, it threatens to crumble under its own thematic density. Fortunately, it’s all told with such zany audacity you can’t begrudge the guy for trying. Think of Kurt Vonnegut at his silliest directed by Spike Lee at his most vitriolic and you won’t be far off.
It’s tough to say how general audiences are going to respond to something this aggressively weird and stylish. There’s a narrative turn about two-thirds of the way in that’s either going to crack you up with its absurdity or leave you clamoring for the exit. I was decidedly part of the former camp, and the audience at SXSW was in lockstep with its rapid-fire visual comedy. Sorry to Bother You marks the emergence of a promising new voice in satire, and its messy, idiosyncratic ambition will undoubtedly leave a fervent following in its wake.