For Cassius "Cash" Green (Lakeith Stanfield), his financial situation could be better, so he has gone to some lengths to secure a job, any job, leading him to a telephone marketing firm in his hometown of Oakland which may not be the most prestigious company around, but is at least better than the Worry Free centres that have sprung up across the country. They promise free board and all your food needs satisfied, what you need to do is sell your life over to them and work at one of their outlets. Cash cannot say he isn't tempted, but his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is sceptical about the idea, and takes note of the growing protests against the establishment...
At a time when black cinema across the globe was providing some truly daring choices and making the film landscape a very exciting one, writer and director (and composer) Boots Riley happened along with a picture that put even some of those to shame. It was almost too creative for its own good, stuffed with ideas as if he had come up with everything he wanted to include in his career and decided he might not get another chance as good as this again, so what the hell, put them all into one near-two hours of movie. The results were an experience that appeared to care little if you were keeping up with his invention, Riley and his team were going to plough ahead with them whatever you thought.
With that in mind, Sorry to Bother You could be described as exhausting by the finishing line, but that did not mean it was not worth watching. If there was a comparison to be made, yes, you could go with Michel Gondry who Riley did admit to being influenced by (which sadly led to some bad blood between them), but this also resembled an older cult movie from the nineteen-seventies, Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man!, which featured a salesman hero facing up to the surreally dark side of capitalism as well. In that, Malcolm McDowell's protagonist was landed up to his neck in a succession of increasingly bizarre adventures in his endeavours to get ahead and make some money in this world, but the conclusion was similar.
That was, capitalism is not about to let you make a name for yourself, never mind a fortune, without some major caveats. The pointedly-named Cash does well in his telephone selling job by accepting the advice of an old hand at the game, played by Danny Glover, that he will not get anywhere in this occupation with a black voice - better to adopt a white voice instead. There follows bizarrely amusing scenes of Cash speaking with comedian David Cross's most nasal tones in a commentary that Anderson was not so interested in including back in the seventies: the race issue, here telling us that the way for an African-American to succeed is to appeal to the white population. It's goofy in this presentation, but like everything here there was a sincerity to it, a level gaze at the audience, that was disarming, though not without a sense of desperation.
Eventually, Riley has thrown into the mix anything from Mike Judge's Idiocracy to Terry Gilliam's Brazil to, in the most confounding development, Eugene Ionescu's Rhinoceros, the influences a dizzying combination yet the director retained his particular voice throughout, taking on more modern concerns such as the debasement of cultural thought to a set of memes or whether mass protests did any good or not. There was plenty to unpack here, and if it went on a shade too long, it might have been even more provocative at O Lucky Man!'s three hour running time, an epic that dared you to stick with it as it turned up the weirdness and political subversion all the way. As it was, you could not accuse this of chickening out of dedicating itself to a vision that was a strange, strange mirror image of our own world, and if you wanted something that pulled no punches, made you think in a genuinely brave reassessment of how the planet was going, this was going to do you good. Nuggets of wisdom populated its craziness, maybe none wiser than the observation that when people don't think they can change a big problem, they just work out ways to live with it.