Magazine | August 27, 2018, Issue

Anti-Capitalist Performance Art

Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You (Annapurna Pictures)

Midway through Sorry to Bother You, an anti-capitalist dystopian satire and the sort of movie for which the term “cult favorite” was invented, the girlfriend of our protagonist — she’s played by Tessa Thompson, he by Lakeith Stanfield — stages a performance-art piece that involves bags of pig’s blood and bullet casings being hurled at her body while she wears a bikini made of gloves (so it looks like her clothes are groping her) and laments the despoliation of Africa while reciting dialogue from another, very different cult movie, the mid-’80s martial-arts flick The Last Dragon.

Got all that? Just to be clear, this is by no means the strangest situation in a movie that ultimately features a super-rich tech bro named Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) trying to persuade the protagonist to accept a job as a double agent among the restive horse people — sorry, equisapiens — who the tech bro genetically engineered to replace his inefficient human factory workers.

But the performance art is a good place to start because it’s a pretty good entrée to what the film is offering: Sorry to Bother You has the shaggy feel of a happening and the idiosyncrasies of a one-man show, and its radicalism feels less like a manifesto than a splattered canvas, with all its targets buried under bursts of garish paint.

Stanfield plays a Millennial layabout named Cassius “Cash” Green, who lives with his girlfriend, Detroit, in the garage of a ranch house owned by his struggling uncle (Terry Crews). Hard up for rent money, he talks his way into a job at RegalView, a telemarketing firm that sells leather-bound volumes and other inessential items over the phone. Once employed, the African-American Cash discovers that he can part foolish Americans from their money by assuming his “white voice” (in reality the voice of the comedian David Cross, who is indeed pretty white), and he soon ascends from the ranks of toiling proles to become a “power caller.”

This ascent creates some tensions be­tween Cash and his former co-workers, his paramour, and the RegalView union organizer (Steven Yeun) trying to rally the proles to get a raise and maybe steal Detroit’s affections along the way. But at first Cash is content to sell his pals out and cross the picket line, because he’s no longer selling junk on commission but doing RegalView’s much more lucrative real business, which turns out to be salesmanship on behalf of the military-industrial complex.

The industrial part of that complex is embodied by WorryFree, a company that promises to feed and house and care for its employees but really works them round the clock in conditions that would make a Foxconn or Amazon warehouse supervisor blush. Lift, the WorryFree CEO, soon notices Cash’s talent and summons him to a lavish house party where, in between the predictable orgies, the aforementioned equisapiens are revealed.

At which point — well, I think that’s enough plot. As the names of characters and companies suggest, this is not a subtle movie, nor is it exactly what you would call a good one. It’s the work of Boots Riley, a rapper and musician (and self-proclaimed Communist) making his directorial debut, and there is a chopped-together quality to the shots and scenes that could be defended as intentionally disorienting but mostly feels like amateurism. Thompson, taking a break from big-budget genre work on Westworld and Thor: Ragnarok, brings a lot of charisma to her role, and Hammer likewise, but Stanfield, who’s brilliant on FX’s Atlanta playing a chill Zen-master weirdo, isn’t quite as right for this more everyman-ish, straight-man part.

The movie is also too long and, at times, oddly anachronistic: The telemarketer invading your domestic privacy to hawk leather-bound books seems like a good target for an anti-consumerist polemic in the year 1965, and save for one viral-video moment this is a story about under-35-year-olds and technology and capitalism with surprisingly little to say about the Internet.

But it’s in the nature of cult favorites to be flawed, clumsy, strange, unsuccessful in parts, amateurish in others. Sorry to Bother You isn’t trying to be The Godfather or even just regular glossy Oscar bait. It’s trying to be funny, weird, disturbing, unpredictable, and sometimes simply freaky. And in that effort, whether the horse-headed people are screaming or the pig’s-blood balloons are flying, it unquestionably succeeds.

There are going to be a lot of extremely left-wing movies made in the age of the Trump administration and its aftermath, but this (and not, say, The First Purge) is the one that the young woke film-school types of 2052 are going to tell their robot girlfriends that they simply have to watch. So if you want to see it on the big screen now, rather than via bootlegged retinal upload in the Barron Trump administration, here’s your chance.

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