But in presenting an overstuffed but vibrant satire, Boots Riley — a Hip Hopper moved behind the camera — comes awfully close and if Riley tries to say too much, perhaps he should be forgiven. Better too much than nothing at all.
On its surface, Riley’s Sorry to Bother You seems like a comedy directed at one of the great contemporary nuisances, telemarketing. Anyone who has answered one of those pesky calls during dinner obviously should relate. But Riley has more in mind -- much more.
The story centers on Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), an unemployed young man who lands a job at a telemarketing company, having impressed his prospective employer by falsifying his resume. The point quickly becomes clear: In the telemarketing business, a commitment to honesty might be the least valuable asset an employee can possess.
Initially, Cassius -- a.k.a. Cash -- doesn’t meet with much success. Riley illustrates this by dropping the fumbling Cash into the lives of the people he calls, sight gags that enlarge an already colossal annoyance. Wham! There's Cash giving his spiel while a couple makes love.
It doesn’t take long for Cash to learn the secret of successful telemarketing. A sage old-timer (Danny Glover) advises him to use his “white voice” as a means of draining the swamp of desperation callers might hear if Cash talks normally. Cash begins talking "white" courtesy of a voice supplied by David Cross.
Lo, Cash works his way up the corporate ladder. He’s so good at his job that he’s promoted to the ranks of Power Caller, a coveted position that moves him to an upper floor accessed by a golden-doored elevator with the world’s most elaborate security code.
Cash soon learns that, as a Power Caller, he has one job: to sell the services of Worry Free, a company that supplies workers to other companies, a euphemistic way of saying that Worry Free employees become lifetime servants of their employer. Those who work for Worry Free are housed and fed (badly) by the company. In every way imaginable, they become subservient to a corporate juggernaut, which is led by a character named Steve Lift (a bearded Armie Hammer).
With help from a Power Caller supervisor (Omari Hardwick), Cash catches Lift's eye. Turns out that Lift, played by Hammer as a hotshot who hides his cruelty and greed beneath a banner of innovation, has a special proposition for Cash.
All this plunges Cash into an ethical crisis. While he’s advancing, his buddies from the lower floor — led by a firebrand played by Steven Yeun) —- are trying to unionize. They have the audacity to demand salaries and benefits rather than wages based solely on commission.
Stanfield, familiar to those who watch TV's Atlanta, has the ability to portray Cash as a half-formed man; he's clearly smart but we wonder if he could truly realize himself only by refusing to participate in the rigged economy out of which Riley's satire bubbles.
Cash's morally compromised success also puts him at odds with his girlfriend (Tessa Thompson), an artist who eventually draws a line: Either Cash shapes up morally or she'll ship out.
When a director employs cartoonish visual jests that lead us toward a bizarre sci-fi fantasy, he’s bound to include a few misses among the hits. A piece of performance art by Thompson’s character may leave you scratching your head.
But Riley drops a persistent question about black male characters into a new context. Can Cash maintain any semblance of an authentic self while navigating a corporate world where his voice (literally and metaphorically) proves a crippling liability?
But Riley doesn’t stop there: He also takes on game shows, reality TV, corporate greed, race, and, perhaps most important, public indifference, the way we’ve all become too numb to feel any more outrage. In a climate that breeds indifference, it may be impossible for individual action to become socially transformative.
Sorry to Bother You stands as a comedy that strikes enough targets to make it a welcome attempt to say something about where we actually are — instead of trying to transport us, as many movies do, to places we’d rather be.