Peel back the surface of a lot of great comedies and you’ll find a core of righteous anger — whether it’s the war cries behind “Duck Soup,” the racial tension within “Blazing Saddles,” the distrust of religious fervor in “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” or the political cynicism of “Wag the Dog.”
Add to that list Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” a screaming satirical missile aimed at the heart of American capitalism and exploitation.
The movie centers on Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield), a smart but aimless young black man in Oakland, Calif. Cassius lives in a garage, at a house owned by his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews). The situation affords him no privacy with his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a militant-feminist artist.
Cassius needs a job, and he lands one in a telemarketing firm. Working in a boiler room of cubicles, he finds the job degrading, as he interrupts other people’s lives to try to sell worthless product. (The depiction of these moments, as Cassius’ desk literally drops into someone else’s house, is one of the many clever absurdist images Riley delivers throughout the film.) Cassius is muddling along until a wise co-worker, Langston (Danny Glover), gives him some advice: “Read the script with your white voice.”
Cassius’ “white voice” — supplied by “Arrested Development” star David Cross, who’s about as white a performer as you can think of — becomes his ticket to telemarketing success. The company brass notice, and he’s quickly promoted to the VIP floor, where the big sales are happening. His new boss (Omari Hardwick) also knows the power of “white voice” (his is provided by Patton Oswalt, another on-the-nose choice), and he sees big things in Cassius’ future. So does the visionary CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), whom Riley depicts as a parody amalgam of Tony Robbins and Elon Musk.
But Cassius’ rapid rise takes its toll on his personal life — particularly when Detroit, in the midst of developing a confrontational art installation, accuses him of selling out his principles.
Writer-director Riley, the rapper who leads the socially conscious hip-hop group The Coup, paints a brightly colored, deliriously manic alternative reality that feels only a bit crazier than our own. It’s a world that the Marx Brothers or Richard Pryor or the Monty Python gang would immediately recognize shares their anarchic spirit, but still one that’s excitingly original.
Amid the laughs, Riley gives the audience a lot to chew on, about rampant capitalism, the news media, reality TV, social media and more. And the trajectory of his weird wild ride doesn’t peak too soon. He sustains the off-the-wall satire all the way to the finale, which I could try to describe but won’t because: a) spoilers, and b) you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Suffice it to say it feels insane, but it also follows a certain logic — based on Riley’s take on capitalist greed — that makes perfect sense.
“Sorry to Bother You” is more than a must-see comedy that tucks a vital message under the camouflage of sharp humor. It’s a declaration that Riley is an important new voice, determined to shake up the status quo.
’Sorry to Bother You’
Rapper-turned-filmmaker Boots Riley takes on capitalism, racial and class divides, and more in his brilliant, absurdist comedy.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy).
When • Opens Friday, July 13.
Rating • R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and drug use.
Running time • 105 minutes.