To its disciples, capitalism seems straightforward and logical. It’s only when you take a step back, or see it from the outside, or feel its boot on your neck, that you realize that capitalism is a master impossible to please in the long run—and that its devotees will think up any and all cruel absurdities to feed its growth. It’s fitting, then, that Sorry to Bother You, one of the sharpest and most invigorating corporate satires in years, keeps escalating in surreality as its protagonist, a salesman named Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), uncovers nastier and nastier secrets about his company and its client firms. The film’s uncanny images build in wit and discomfort until they reach nightmarish proportions—an artful metaphor for unrestrained capitalism’s natural endpoint.
Written and directed by Boots Riley, the frontman of the political hip-hop group the Coup, the Oakland, California–set Sorry to Bother You isn’t just an ode to the common man in a post-industrial economy—one in which the common man works in a shady telemarketing office and reports to some guy (Michael X. Sommers) with a suspicious number of face and neck tattoos. It’s also about the self-erasure (or, more neutrally, the code-switching) it takes for a black worker to rise in the largely white corporate ranks. One of the film’s earliest and funniest gags involve Cash’s “white voice”: When Stanfield opens his mouth, we hear David Cross’ nasal, too-chipper drone. The “white voice” is encouraged by one of Cash’s older black colleagues (Danny Glover), who explains that it’s not what white people actually sound like but what they think they’re supposed to sound like: carefree and confident and always ready to chat about the Spin Doctors. Soon enough, Cash’s “white voice,” which creeps out his artist and sign-twirler girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), bleeds into his personal life. The sync between the actors and the white voices is far from perfect, which may be unintentional but certainly adds to the jarring effect.
But Cash’s self-disassociation has its advantages, too. While a co-worker (Steven Yeun) attempts to organize the telemarketers into a union, Cash is promoted to an upper echelon of employees who make the bulk of the company’s profits—and are forced to sell a product that shouldn’t exist. Cash’s continued success leads him to a party thrown by Steve Lift, the CEO of his company (Armie Hammer in a gloriously freaky performance that suggests that, like Brad Pitt, he may be a character actor with leading-man looks). It’s at Steve’s mansion that Cash discovers that all of the sacrifices he’d put himself through to get there are nothing compared to the self-renunciations that his boss has in mind for him.
Sorry to Bother You is Riley’s feature debut, and his keen satirical eye finds no shortage of targets. He precisely lampoons the ’roided-up culture of sales, as well as the whimsies and subtle power games of the white and wealthy. (Particularly inspired is Steve’s host attire, comprising a suit jacket, an open-collared shirt, and a long, striped skirt he seemingly picked up on a college trip to a third-world country he can’t remember the name of anymore.) Likewise, Riley has little respect for the “fake-ass bougie gallery world,” as one character calls it, though the director does display sympathy for Detroit’s creative ambitions, as well as the off-stage performances necessary for black artists to appeal to white buyers. (Thompson’s rainbow curls, glittery makeup, and message-blaring earrings offer an additional visual delight.) There’s a bit of an everything-popular-is-bad snobbery with which Riley creates his world, but the portrait of Oakland that emerges is one that rings true: that of a sunny, hilly, color-filled city that’s deceptively hard to live in, and where hierarchies both hidden and overt govern too many interactions.
Hammer delivers the standout performance, but the cast we see—and the one we don’t, which includes the voices of Forest Whitaker and Rosario Dawson—is uniformly excellent. Playing against type, Stanfield helps ground the acceleration of eeriness, so that the phantasmagoria never loses sight of its tragic implications. (Late in the picture, the film descends so far into a fever dream that a stop-motion homage to Michel Gondry implausibly feels like a return to reality.) A conspicuously dumb joke nearly ruins a scene, a couple of storylines don’t go anywhere, and the ending simply feels like the film running out of steam. But Sorry to Bother You is so smart and so potent for so long—and so inventive yet thoughtfully measured in its use of the absurd—that the flaws simply give way. You don’t remember the endings of dreams, after all—just the parts that left you in a pool of your own sweat.