'Sorry to Bother You' eventually loses its way in a welter of surreality

There’s a promising satirical idea embedded in 'Sorry to Bother You,' but the writer-director, Boots Riley, doesn’t quite know how to extricate it.

Annapurna Pictures/AP
Tessa Thompson (l.) and Lakeith Stanfield star in 'Sorry To Bother You.'

There’s a promising satirical idea embedded in “Sorry to Bother You,” but writer-director Boots Riley, the hip-hop artist making his directing debut, doesn’t quite know how to extricate it. He may not care. The film’s barbs about racism, capitalism, slavery, and cultural appropriation are so purposefully scattershot that the fact that none of it really hangs together is likely viewed as a badge of honor.

Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is living in his uncle’s Oakland, Calif., garage and is months behind in his rent. Rousing himself for a job interview with a telemarketing company, he soon lands work in their dungeonlike basement. Encased in a cubicle, he makes no headway until an older employee (Danny Glover) suggests he use his “white” voice when pitching on the phone. (What’s being pitched are print encyclopedias, no less – one of the first signs that the world of this movie is heavily askew.)

His success at sounding white is so spectacular that soon Cash is breaking sales records and gets promoted upstairs as a “power caller.” Until this point, the film is reasonably creepy-funny, even if the satire, starting with the chief protagonist’s name, isn’t exactly subtle. I mean, Cash Green?

But once Armie Hammer enters the picture as the overlord of the nefarious corporation behind the telemarketing outfit, the movie loses its way in a welter of surreality. The corporation, heavily advertised in the media, is called Worry Free. It promises a hassle-free existence to all those who sign up for a lifetime labor contract in their factory, where one lives and dies in Orwellian regimentation. It’s a crackbrain dystopia – sci-fi slave labor – and Riley doesn’t have the imaginative reach (or the budget) to make much of his conceit.

Most of the film, which also has links to Spike Jonze’s "Being John Malkovich," plays like a variation on some of Spike Lee’s more scabrous racial fantasias like “Bamboozled.” It’s also very much in the vein of films like “Get Out,” which also mixed horror, racial comedy, and social consciousness, though here to far less effect. Stanfield, who was memorable in “Get Out,” is once again good, if a tad too zombified, and, as his activist girlfriend, Tessa Thompson has just the right amount of gumption. Grade: B- (Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use.)       

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