The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Sorry to Bother You’ sharply criticizes contemporary life — and then it goes off the rails

Telemarketer Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) discovers a magical key to professional success -- using a "white voice" on the phone. (Video: Annapurna Pictures)
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(2.5 stars)

In “Sorry to Bother You,” Lakeith Stanfield plays Cassius Green, a financially strapped young man living in a semi-futuristic version of Oakland, where he bunks down in his cousin’s garage with his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), an artist with a fiery sense of irony and a penchant for provocative earrings.

As “Sorry to Bother You” opens, Cassius is trying to increase his fortunes, interviewing at a telemarketing company called RegalView, where he has brought along an employee-of-the-month plaque and a dusty trophy from earlier days as references. The manager overlooks the lapse in protocol, telling Cassius he’s proved that he has exactly what RegalView is looking for: “You have initiative, and you can read!”

Thus begins an increasingly bizarre journey that finds Cassius on the road to super-success, at least once he’s advised by a wise colleague (played by Danny Glover) to use his “white voice” when calling anonymous strangers. “And not Will Smith-white,” the older man intones. Instead, he says, affect the vocal patina of privilege and entitlement that makes it sound as if “you don’t have a care in the world.”

Written and directed by hip-hop musician Boots Riley in an auspicious but self-defeatingly anarchic debut, “Sorry to Bother You” traces Cassius’s ascent through the corporate ranks, the zenith of which is a company called WorryFree, which sells people the fantasy of complete security, both in work and housing. Led by a coke-snorting bro named Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), Worry­Free lives up to its name in its idealized TV ads, but through another lens it looks a lot like modern-day slavery: While Cassius grapples with the ethical implications of improving his lot — is it success or self-betrayal? — he begins to alienate Detroit and his workplace friends, who have started to organize a union.

Stanfield will be familiar to viewers from his role on “Atlanta” as well as last year’s breakout horror hit “Get Out,” to which “Sorry to Bother You” bears more than a passing resemblance. As in that film, Riley uses a today- ­adjacent alternate universe to explore themes of assimilation, selling out and cultural appropriation (a scene when Cassius “raps” for a decadent, mostly white party is one of the film’s most vividly effective). And it’s a masterful study of code-switching, the linguistic practice of tailoring different vocal cadences, accents and dialects to one’s audience. In “Sorry to Bother You,” Riley underscores the psychic doubling that ensues by dubbing in the voices of actual white actors, who here include David Cross and Patton Oswalt.

It’s a jarring but amusing conceit, and much of “Sorry to Bother You” possesses similarly on-point jokes; the film is a fluid, peripatetic montage of set pieces, visual gags and ingeniously conceived stunts that are utterly of a piece with Cassius’s own tortured relationship to mobility within white-dominated social spaces. Early in the film, when he’s cold-calling clients, Riley shows Cassius literally dropping into the homes he’s calling, interrupting people’s dinners and lovemaking; when he reaches the big time, the executive elevator to the building’s top floor is accessed only by an absurdly long security code.

In many ways, “Sorry to Bother You” seems inspired by Mike Judge at his most antic and deadpan, especially his management and political satires “Office Space” and “Idiocracy.” But as Cassius moves between the ever-multiplying worlds that make up his personal universe — the dronelike hive of RegalView, Detroit’s edgy art studio, Lift’s bacchanalian lair, a new minimalist-chic apartment — Riley’s control over his own material begins to falter. This is a movie of myriad worthy, even urgently necessary, ideas; when it reaches its climax, it goes completely haywire in a preposterous, increasingly scattershot sci-fi pastiche.

That development will either delight audiences or alienate them, depending on their taste for self-consciously outrageous pulp. But even skeptics will agree that if “Sorry to Bother You” doesn’t entirely succeed as a coherent movie, it bursts with zany, unfiltered passion and go-for-broke brio. What’s more, it offers a deserved showcase for Stanfield, who is that rare actor who can almost immediately earn the audience’s sympathy, his hooded, hunched reticence conveying both hard-won mistrust and vulnerability.

Supported by the likes of Thompson, Glover, Hammer, Omari Hardwick, Steven Yeun and a host of maybe-recognizable voice actors, Stanfield anchors a movie that brims with energy, inventiveness and the sharply honed outrage of an acute observer of contemporary life. Riley steeps his movie in the traditions of black intellectualism, capitalist critique and political theory, infusing “Sorry to Bother You” with both high-toned ideas and midnight-movie silliness at its most brazen and unruly. The film’s ­final-final ending might strike some as too pessimistic, but “Sorry to Bother You” might be more accurately understood as an impassioned, chaotically accurate response to dark and troubling times. After all, few can credibly argue that cash is green, even when it’s covered in blood.

R. At Angelika Film Center Mosaic and Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains pervasive crude language, some strong sexual material, graphic nudity and drug use. 107 minutes.

(2.5 stars)