When hiphop collective the Coup released their sixth album, Sorry to Bother You, frontman Boots Riley, a former telemarketer and Occupy Oakland activist, described it as "a dark comedy with magical realism." That description applies equally well to his razor-sharp directorial debut.
The title phrase, of course, is how telemarketers, like Cassius Green (Atlanta's and Get Out's Lakeith Stanfied), launch cold calls to potential customers. He's just a young dude trying to earn enough to graduate from his uncle's garage where he lives with his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist in Julianne Moore-in-The-Big Lebowski mode.
Riley grounds things in a loose semblance of reality before shit starts to gets weird. Every time Cash makes a call, marks (people on the other end of the line) hang up on him, so he tries on a Putney Swope-like white voice (voiced by David Cross in spectacularly geeky form). This is a joke that should get old fast. It doesn't. Marks love their unctuous new pal and buy crap they don't need, and Cash finally gets to ride the Mishima-inspired gold elevator to RegalView's top floor, where the Power Sellers—a shallow gaggle of strivers—congregate.
The more money he makes, the more of a jerk he becomes. Soon he's "inhaling coke by the mouth or nose," as Riley rapped on the Coup's Pick a "Bigger Weapon," with CEO Steve Lift (an oleaginous Armie Hammer) and attending parties where he makes like a modern-day Stepin Fetchit.
If he's making more than he deserves, his first-floor colleagues, like Danny Glover's old-timer Langston, are making less, at which point a union organizer (Steven Yuen), the film's true hero, steps up to the plate. When Cash stumbles into Lift's plan to exploit workers like never before, Riley's satire enters the nightmare realm of Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man!
It’s high praise to cite a master filmmaker like Anderson, though not everything about Sorry to Bother You works, like Detroit, who conforms too closely to the stereotype of the fully committed—if faintly ridiculous—feminist artist. But Riley's ability to transfer his leftist politics intact from turntable to screen is truly miraculous. His film has a distinct look that ranges from pop-art bright to demonically dark, and Stanfield's lightly absurdist performance holds it all together. You like him and want to see what he does next. By the time the capitalist system has transformed Cash into another rich asshole, it's too late: you still like him. And that's exactly how they get you.