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Review: Boots Riley’s 'Sorry to Bother You' is a bombastically brilliant debut

Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield

Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield Annapurna Pictures

Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You is brilliant, bizarre, overstuffed, wonderfully chaotic, exhausting, hilarious, upsetting, and insightful. It openly fronts an eclectic blend of influences—from the race-inflected commercial satire of Putney Swope to the disparate DIY aesthetics of Michel Gondry and hip-hop godfather Rudy Ray Moore—yet it remains totally singular. It’s the only comedy bonkers enough for 2018.

Riley sets his story in a warped funhouse-mirror version of economically struggling modern-day Oakland that’s not nearly as far removed from reality as you might like to think. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield of Atlanta and Get Out) lives in a makeshift garage bedroom in his uncle’s house, and he’s in desperate need of work. His uncle (Terry Crews) is facing foreclosure and considering joining WorryFree, an organization that offers you dorm-style living and prison-style food if you volunteer for their near endless workdays—oh, and you have to sign a lifetime contract.

Cash gets a gig at a soul-crushing telemarketing agency where a veteran employee (Danny Glover) clues him in on how to use his “white voice” to make more sales. When Cash masters a kind of next-level codeswitching, Stanfield’s voice is overdubbed by David Cross, and the white voice puts Cash on the trajectory for his big payday.

That’s one brazen, hilarious concept in a movie chock full of them. Sorry to Bother You’s greatest flaw might be that it has too much to say, and too many inventive ways to say it. What begins as a fairly straightforward, hyper-stylized satire veers into outright surrealism as Cash climbs the corporate ladder into a world he can barely recognize or comprehend, where WorryFree’s CEO (Armie Hammer) propagates an outlandish conspiracy. If only more movies were overburdened with terrific ideas and could so capriciously throw away gimmicks that would be the centerpiece of less inventive films.

Sorry to Bother You is the feature film debut of the decade, but Riley’s bombastic wit is not unprecedented. His facility for language and narrative are all there in the work of his hip-hop outfit the Coup. (Seriously, as soon as you’re done reading this, listen to the Coup’s “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night.”)

Riley has much to say about gruesome acts of capitalism, wage slavery, and slavery-slavery, about complicity and culpability and art in the era of hyper-commodification. His most direct avatar is Cash’s girlfriend Detroit (the fantastic Tessa Thompson), a defiantly optimistic resistance fighter who brings her artistry to every element of her life, from her brash fashion to her minimum-wage gig spinning signs on a street corner. (Riley has a sense of humor about himself, too; Detroit’s sign spinning is hilariously awkward.)

Sorry to Bother You is so unabashedly a message movie that Thompson wears actual messages on her shirts and massive earrings (woke PSAs like “The Future Is Female Ejaculation”). It’s buoyed by a lively, wry sense of humor and lovingly detailed art design, but Riley is goddamn serious, both in his firebrand capitalist critique and his more ambiguous explorations into the essence of blackness. The one thing he is not is sorry.

Sorry to Bother You
Director: Boots Riley
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler
Rated: R
Theater: Now showing, area theaters