The title treatment for “Sorry to Bother You,” Boots Riley’s joyous dystopian cackle of a directing debut, has more personality than most movies. Designed by the children’s book illustrator J. Otto Seibold in a blocky original font — let’s call it “Dinosaur Tetris” — it conquers the screen in big capital letters and screaming shades of fuschia.
It signals that the title of this arrestingly strange and provocative fantasia should be read sarcastically, even impudently. If ever you could distill the essence of a movie’s tone into a typeface, this is it.
It’s worth paying attention to the various logos, graphics and chyrons in “Sorry to Bother You,” especially the giant word-bling earrings modeled by the fabulous Tessa Thompson. Riley, a longtime Oakland-based rapper and progressive activist, has an eye for visual detail as precise and inventive as his ear for music. He imagines a soul-crushing, not-so-distant future where you are what you advertise, and where protest banners and promotional materials blur together in an indistinguishable flood of signs and slogans.
I’ll mention a few of the printable ones — “Have a Cola and Smile, Bitch!” “Bury the Rag Deep in Your Face!” “Shut ’Em Down!” — but leave you the pleasure of discovering their precise narrative origins. Suffice to say that Riley steers us into a world where branding, even in service of a righteous cause, has become so ubiquitous as to drown out all meaning. And meaning is what a young Oakland straggler named Cassius Green (a superb Lakeith Stanfield) finds himself looking for, albeit in all the wrong places, as he starts working as a telemarketer at a firm called RegalView.
The company has little use for honesty — Cassius gets caught in multiple lies during his interview and gets hired anyway — but happily rewards those employees with a gift for dogged, mindless persistence. Cassius, stuffed into a cubicle with a rigid script (“Sorry to bother you … ”) and a list of phone numbers, doesn’t fare too well at first. One of the funniest sight gags sees him crash-landing, desk and all, into the homes of the people he’s cold-calling, brilliantly literalizing the intrusiveness of his job.
But it isn’t until Cassius takes the advice of an older co-worker (Danny Glover) to speak to callers in his “white voice” — an exaggeratedly nasal, slightly over-caffeinated voice supplied by David Cross — that he starts to get ahead. His sales numbers skyrocket, leaving his co-workers in the dust, and soon he moves out of the RegalView basement and into the executive suites reserved for “power callers,” reachable only via a gilded elevator with the world’s longest access code.
Riley’s cheerfully deranged script has a curious tendency to seem haphazard in the moment, only to pull back and reveal a larger design. And he gives his ideas a marvelously fluid cinematic form — apparent in the movement and precision of Doug Emmett’s cinematography, the vibrant colors of Jason Kisvarday’s production design and the moody intensity of the soundtrack, much of it by Riley’s hip-hop band the Coup — that dodges your every attempt to nail down the movie’s true intentions.
For a while, things seem to be on the upswing for Cassius. After months of living in a garage owned by his Uncle Sergio (Terry Crews), he’s finally earning enough to move into an apartment with his performance-artist-activist girlfriend, Detroit (Thompson). But as Detroit points out, with growing disenchantment, there are moral costs to the rampant code switching that enables Cassius’ ascent up the corporate ladder.
Suppressing his racial identity during phone calls is one thing. Being commanded to improvise a rap onstage in front of a drooling, mostly white audience is an entirely different order of cultural degradation — especially when it comes at the behest of the coke-snorting Silicon Valley tech-bro from hell, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). Lift is the CEO of a RegalView-affiliated company called WorryFree, effectively a system of slavery masquerading as a lifestyle brand, which feeds and shelters people in exchange for their servitude.
The even more grotesque reality lurking behind this arrangement must be seen to be believed — and even then, you might not believe it. Not every joke here lands, and not every experiment proves successful, but it scarcely matters. The genius of the picture is that even its wildest, most boundary-pushing formulations are tied to a thoughtful, rigorous thesis about how disparities of race, class and money conspire to keep ruthless systems of human oppression in place.
All of which runs the risk of making “Sorry to Bother You” sound like more of a political tract than a movie, which couldn’t be further from the truth. While it is recognizably an extension of the director’s activism, it is also a playful and restlessly imaginative work of art, one that gathers up an eclectic range of influences — blaxploitation, Motown, Bob Dylan, Nickelodeon, Spike Lee’s rage, Spike Jonze’s whimsy — and pushes them rambunctiously forward, into a genre that might be described as intersectional screwball science fiction.
Cassius’ thrilling escape from drudgery and poverty reveals itself as simply a more insidious form of entrapment, one that sends poisonous tendrils into every corner of his life. His relationship with Detroit, realized in a few scenes of startlingly lovely intimacy, quickly sours. So do his friendships with his co-workers Salvador and Squeeze (Jermaine Fowler and Steven Yeun, both excellent), who become involved in an increasingly noisy union protest outside the doors of RegalView.
The evils of selling out have rarely been more clearly and imaginatively defined, but “Sorry to Bother You” is shrewd enough not to fall into its own trap by selling out its hero. And this is due, more than anything, to Stanfield’s performance. The sheer insanity of the situations that befall Cassius forces him to respond with wit, energy and reckless audacity, but the captivating stillness and melancholy cool that are among Stanfield’s defining traits as an actor never recede. He gives the proceedings an extraordinarily human anchor.
Stanfield’s mere presence here suggests a subliminal link between this movie and some of his other projects, including last year’s “Get Out” and the FX series “Atlanta,” all of which testify to a nervy strain of comic surrealism in films and TV shows by black artists. I mention these reference points not to define the limits of Riley’s movie, but only to suggest something of its singular and heroically madcap spirit. Sorry to bother you, but you really should see it.
‘Sorry to Bother You’
Rating: R, for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood