Revolutions are always messy affairs, and so is revolutionary art. But without the trailblazing, reckless spirit of innovation and true inspiration, you don’t get works of originality and beauty like Sorry to Bother You, the debut film from writer-director, musician and overall Renaissance man Boots Riley of The Coup. Riley’s vision is a wide-ranging one, from small-scale struggle to economic and political upheaval, and how the prevailing social order influences the way people interact with one another.
Don’t let that last sentence turn you off, because this movie is as funny and jaw-droppingly inventive as it is committed to its message. We’ve all been burned by movies whose politics we wholeheartedly endorse but are delivered in mawkish, cringeworthy ways, that are committed to the idea of making a statement but throw in a plot twist right when things get interesting. Sorry to Bother You has a mother of a twist that doubles down on its themes while also propelling the narrative into uncharted territory. Riley’s politics and his artistic inspiration are clearly fueled by the same tank, and it’s his steady direction and storytelling that keeps the madness going. You wouldn’t believe what happens if we told you, but after you pick your jaw up off the floor, you’ll be shocked at the way a movie you were already enjoying could pack such a wallop while staying on course.
The film follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young man who lands a low- paying job as a telemarketer in Oakland. After a tip from his co-worker (Danny Glover) to use his “white voice” (David Cross, via Stanfield’s mouth) to land more sales, he rises through the ranks of the company, mingling with society’s most wealthy, including Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), CEO of Worry Free, which promises free room and board for life in return for unpaid labor (yes, you read that right). Meanwhile, the union drive among Cassius’ former co-workers reaches a fever pitch, forcing Cassius to choose between his old life, including his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), and labor organizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun).
Sorry to Bother You remains thrilling and hilarious even as it deals with extreme subject matter—revolution, slavery, exploitation, racism, social stratification and police violence. These subjects in themselves are not great fodder for effective comedy, which is why Riley focuses his satire on a society that tolerates these problems and makes excuses for itself. This is recognizably Oakland, but one that exists in a reality that is elevated by omnipresent absurdity; the world we inhabit is already absurd, and by making everything more extreme, the film is able to deliver its satire with precision. During one of Detroit’s art shows, she begins a performance employing her “white voice” and invites the crowd to pelt her with animal blood, cell phones and other raw materials. Cassius, horrified, interrupts and asks why she would subject herself to such treatment—this is after he has sold human labor and stolen natural resources for his own profit. Perhaps Detroit’s show was degrading, but after it is over she will retain ownership of her art and her soul. Cassius, meanwhile, is the one degrading himself, living in servitude to the world’s wealthy, his independence and power only a facade approved by a society built on exploitation.
All that and funny, too. If you only see one movie this summer, make it Sorry to Bother You.
Sorry to Bother You
R, 107 minutes; Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Violet Crown Cinema
Playing this week
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
Ant-man and The Wasp, The Equalizer 2, Hotel Transylvania 3, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, Skyscraper
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
Ant-man and The Wasp, The First Purge, Hotel Transylvania 3, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Ocean’s 8, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Skyscraper, Uncle Drew
Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000 z Ant-Man and The Wasp, Damsel, Hearts Beat Loud, Hereditary, Hotel Transylvania 3, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Leave No Trace, Ocean’s 8, RBG, Skyscraper, TAG, Uncle Drew, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?