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'Sorry To Bother You': Ambitious Telemarketing Satire Can't Close The Sale

Caught in a Binder: Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) gets up to speed in <em>Sorry to Bother You</em>.
Peter Prato
Annapurna Pictures
Caught in a Binder: Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) gets up to speed in Sorry to Bother You.

Musician turned filmmaker Boots Riley, who wrote and directed Sorry to Bother You, isn't really apologetic about irking anybody. In fact, the goal of his cinematic debut is to hassle the complacency out of everyone in the house. The movie needles with such glee that it barely matters that the last third is a bewildered and bewildering mess.

Riley is best known as the leader of The Coup, a leftist Oakland hip-hop group whose most recent album is 2012's Sorry to Bother You. The band (whose songs meld with Tune-Yards' jittery score to propel the movie) has proved more popular with critics than everyday listeners. That may be why Riley decided to explore a new medium. Among his evident models are Michel Gondry (acknowledged with an on-screen gag) and Spike Lee.

Our hero is the sort of guy, as eager as he is disaffected, whom Lee used to play in his own movies. Here the role goes to Atlanta's Lakeith Stanfield, who moves easily between swagger and rue. He's Cassius Green, named not for Cassius Clay but for cash and green — which he lacks. When he tells a gas-station attendant to pump him 40 worth, he means 40 cents.

Cassius lives in a something less than a studio apartment in the foreclosure-threatened home of his uncle (Terry Crews), to whom he owes four month's back rent. His principal asset is a vivacious girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), who's an artist and an activist — and as broke as her beau.

After Cassius gets a job as a telemarketer whose patter includes "sorry to bother you," his finances don't improve much. The company pays so little that Cassius is ready to join a strike planned by professional organizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun).

Then an older colleague (Danny Glover) gives Cassius some golden advice: "Use your white voice." Soon his nerdy tones (spoken by David Cross and dubbed with deliberate sloppiness) have made Cassius a "power seller." He abandons his coworkers (who now include Detroit) and boards a golden elevator to the top floor.

What awaits him is a critique of global capitalism that's farcical yet not entirely fictional. It includes the international arms trade and factories that are indistinguishable from prisons. Rather than Third World workers, though, these plants are staffed by Americans who have been lured into a life of corporate slavery advertised as "worry free."

Cassius thrives in this moral twilight zone, and soon is being recruited by the company's manic CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer as a Winkelvoss twin who devoured his brother in a cocaine-fueled frenzy). Lift wants Cassius to lead the next generation of workers, genetically engineered to be a brand new species of oppressed minority.

Race is a crucial part of Riley's lampoonery, but the gags cut both ways. One scene makes fun of both Cassius' inability to freestyle rhymes and his white listeners' enthusiasm for what gangsta rap purveys to them — neatly summarized in two words that are equally unprintable.

The movie makes more jokes about the country's economic divide than its racial one, though. It also spoofs (less successfully) mass media with bits about a viral video and a popular TV show that traffics in pain and humiliation — specifically, Cassius'.

Sorry to Bother Youtakes too long to get to a payoff that's impressively brash but too surreal to function as satire. Yet tightening and focusing the movie's script probably wouldn't have helped. Chaos is essential to Riley's vision, and the movie's absurdity is as timely as it is excessive. At a political moment like this one, no telemarketing hype is too preposterous.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 9, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this review misspelled Armie Hammer's first name as Arnie.
Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for , which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.