Boots Riley could have given himself an easier task for a first feature film. Sorry to Bother You is first and foremost a satire, and few other comedic forms are more perilous onscreen. The deployment of pure absurdity might seem freeing — the wildest ideas can be pursued without much worry over plausibility — but the trickiest of balancing acts is required to make a finished product satisfying. Go too far in any direction, and the biting raucousness can grow strained and tedious in a finger snap. Trafficking in the form has felled the mightiest of filmmakers. Sorry to Bother You isn’t perfect, but the difficulty of the program Riley has undertaken deserves to factor in. He’s made a movie that’s dense with ideas and brimming with energy.
In an especially messy version of the modern moment, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is barely scraping by when he lands a telemarketing job where the directive “Stick to the Script” is sacrosanct. His time among the dismal cubicles is a struggle until a seasoned coworker (Danny Glover) offers the suggestion that he should be using his white voice, which is as much a projection of ease as any manipulation of tone or tenor (although the “white voices” are provided by other actors, including David Cross for Cassius). Once Cassius does his impersonation of comfortable assimilation, his star starts to rise at the company, concurrent to a brimming labor revolution. And that’s when the socio-comic throwing stars are pitched with viciously effective aim.
Sorry to Bother You is about race and labor and art and media and the shaky truth of mass distributed information. It’s about exploitation of the working class and the ways in which people hoping to succeed in the world need to subsume their real selves in favor of toxic preconceptions. In what might very well be its most scathingly insightful detail, it’s about the huge difficulty in getting the broader citizenry to care about abominable abuse exacted on their fellow humans. That Riley keeps this multilayered commentary flowing this while maintaining a cunning visual sense and uniformly guiding the actors to grounded yet inventive performances is an astonishing feat. Sorry to Bother You breaks dozens of rules. More impressively, it makes the rules seem immaterial. Confines are for suckers.