Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer
Directed by: Boots Riley (debut)
Written by: Boots Riley (debut)
Embrace the absurdity. That’s the best advice anyone could give moviegoers who walk into the bizarre, dark comedy “Sorry to Bother You,” written and directed by rapper Boots Riley. It’s one of the most original films you’ll likely see all year, which, depending on your threshold for certifiably crazy storylines, could be a rewarding experience or one that frustrates you.
“STBY” is really an indie movie told in three substantially different acts, all of which progress (or digress, if you refuse to go along for the ride) into a stranger narrative than the one before. To begin, we’re introduced to Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young black man desperate to find a job and move himself and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) out of his uncle’s garage apartment.
He gets the opportunity to climb the corporate ladder when he takes a job with a sketchy telemarketing corporation that promises him a bright and prosperous future if he is able to work his way up and become one of their elite “power callers.” With a promotion comes the opportunity to rub elbows with Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the coke-snorting CEO of a controversial company that profits from slave labor.
The first act is clever and funny as we watch Cassius make sales calls and transport into the houses of the people he is trying to pitch. It’s an inventive way to show the intrusive nature of Cassius’ position and how little power he wields as an insignificant voice behind a telephone. Cassius starts to get the hang of it, however, when a veteran coworker (Danny Glover) advises him to use his “white voice” when speaking to customers. The trick works, and Cassius skyrockets to the top floor, to the frustration of his co-workers who hoped he would support their efforts to unionize so they could demand higher pay and benefits.
Seen as a sell-out — a theme Riley also explores with Detroit, an aspiring performance artist — Cassius pursues his capitalistic self-interest, which leads him to the discovery of what “power callers” are actually selling their clients, and calls into question Cassius’ own sense of moral responsibility. Riley piles on the surreal, politically charged metaphors and satirical scenes at a frenetic rate, so if you keep up, you’ll probably enjoy most of the insanity.
It’s the third act of “STBY” that’ll certainly be the defining moment for viewers who are on the fence about whether Riley lets his sometimes unfocused ambition as a first-time filmmaker get the best of him. What “STBY” has going for it in these final scenes is that it never loses its identity as a bat-shit ridiculous concept that doesn’t take itself the least bit seriously. If anything, it’s refreshing to know there are creators bold enough to attempt something so risky and anarchic.