There are almost too many memorable images to count in Boots Riley’s wonderfully whacked-out satire “Sorry to Bother You,” including a stop-motion film promoting slave labor and a performance artist being pelted with cellphones. One standout moment, though, comes when the film’s hero, a young telemarketer named Cassius “Cash” Green, struggles to understand why customers keep hanging up on him.
“Use your white voice,” says an older co-worker, a small role played by Danny Glover. A white voice, he says, conveys confidence and prosperity, “like you haven’t got a care.” But there’s more: The voice is actually a deception within a deception. “It’s what they think they’re supposed to sound like,” he says.
The combination of keen cultural critique and outrageous satire is what makes “Sorry to Bother You” such a singular film. It seems baked into writer and first-time director Riley, who founded the rap group The Coup in the early 1990s before returning to one of his first loves, filmmaking. Here, Riley reveals a politics of suspicion, a rap-informed sense of sketch comedy and a colorful visual style somewhere between Spike Lee and Michel Gondry. The result is a truly independent-minded movie — homemade, scrappy and slightly overstuffed, but brimming with ideas and crackling with urgency.
Set and filmed in Riley’s hometown of Oakland, California, “Sorry to Bother You” takes place in a near future, or a bizarro present, where capitalism is metastasizing into something grotesque. The pointedly named Cash (a soulful Lakeith Stanfield) is a kind of hip-hop Sammy Glick, a striver chasing an elusive elitism.
At his workplace, “power callers” have their own elevator; at his local bar, the liquor bottles contain smaller bottles of even better liquor. Cash uses his “white voice” (dubbed, amusingly, by David Cross) to open every door of opportunity, but he’ll face a crisis of conscience when he’s asked to sell humanoid slaves to international businessmen.
Riley’s excellent cast ranges from rising stars like Tessa Thompson, as an artist named Detroit, to such well-known faces as Armie Hammer as Steve Lift, a cocaine-snorting billionaire who dreams of literally transforming the workforce.
With its jaundiced eye, wicked sense of humor and hip-hop soundtrack (by both The Coup and Tune-Yards), “Sorry to Bother You” feels like a 21st century update of alt-culture landmarks like “Liquid Sky,” “Repo Man” and Lindsay Anderson’s “Mick Travis” trilogy. This is the movie of the moment, and Riley is one to watch.