'Sorry To Bother You' Review: A Stellar Cast Grounds This Mind-Bending Social Satire [Sundance]

Writer/director Boots Riley has dropped a bomb on Sundance with Sorry To Bother You, a searing social satire and the most eccentric directorial debut in years. Mark it down now: no other movie in 2018 will come close to this one in terms of balancing far-out weirdness with a compelling, meaningful story. Riley has plenty to say (maybe a little too much, in fact), and his outstanding cast of Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, and more ground this startling, mind-bending story that's overflowing with WTF moments.

Stanfield plays Cassius Green, a shaggy Oakland telemarketer who finally finds his calling in life when a wise old co-worker (Danny Glover) advises him to adopt a "white voice" (provided by Arrested Development's David Cross) to sell products to his customers over the phone. In one of the movie's first surreal touches, every time Cassius (aka Cash) makes a call, Riley has Cash and his desk drop into the recipient's house; at various points, Cash comes face to face with a couple having sex, a sad old woman, and a businessman on the toilet.

But just as our protagonist finally finds something he's good at, his co-workers plan to unionize – forcing him to choose between working for the company as a high-paid "power caller" or siding with his friends and activist girlfriend Detroit (Thompson). As Cash climbs the corporate ladder, he eventually meets with the company's drug-fueled CEO Steve Lift (Hammer), who harbors some horrifying secrets about what the company is really selling. To reveal more would be to rob you of the jaw-dropping shock I experienced when the reveal comes, so I'll just confidently say that you've never seen anything like this on screen before.

Riley, a first-time filmmaker but longtime activist, poet, and musician, is practically bursting with ideas, and sometimes it feels as though he's bitten off a bit more than he can chew. But any time that feeling starts to take over, he'll throw in a stylistic flourish that feels like something straight out of a Michel Gondry movie – a success montage in which a small TV splits in half and a huge flatscreen grows out from its middle, cutting to a photo of Cash's father that's supposed to be the same picture throughout but shows the dad changing positions and reacting to Cash's antics, or a stop-motion animation segment that's credited to "Michael Dongry" and is clearly an homage to Gondry himself.

There's a lot going on here: it's a story about pushing back against corporate greed, about the sacrifices we're willing to make for money, and about things getting so nuts that we end up just accepting it as our new normal. (That last aspect feels especially relevant in our current political climate, even though Riley wrote an earlier version of this story years before the chaos of the Trump administration.) But ultimately, this is a story about the sickening feeling of commodification – the commodification of black people, specifically, but the scope widens even further as the extent of Steve Lift's master plan becomes clear.

Stanfield is terrific as Cash, subtly showcasing an internal battle between doing the right thing and finally cashing in on a skill he's been waiting his whole life to discover. Thompson, who's on a real hot streak right now, is similarly wonderful as a sign-spinning artist/activist, committing to the role with everything she has. (At one point during an art exhibit, she gets pelted with cell phones, bullet casings, and balloons full of sheep's blood while she recites lines from The Last Dragon.) And Armie Hammer is a perfect fit as Cash's high-powered boss, a guy who's introduced snorting a line of cocaine so long it'd make Scarface raise an eyebrow. You can tell he's having a lot of fun playing this well-dressed, morally bankrupt villain, taking his wealthy The Social Network persona (personas? personae?) to its logical conclusion.

Fanciful, disturbing, and wildly original, Sorry to Bother You announces the arrival of a fresh, bold voice in American cinema. If something this strange and interesting is our first taste of Boots Riley's capabilities, sign me up for whatever he does next, regardless of how weird it may seem.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10