What would the movie landscape look like if La La Land had palmed off Moonlight and held onto that Best Picture gong at last year's Oscar ceremony? Pre-existing career momentum would likely have ensured Ava DuVernay and Steve McQueen got to make A Wrinkle in Time and Widows respectively, and Spike Lee would doubtless have found some way of bringing BlacKkKlansman to the screen. Jordan Peele's Get Out might not have received the sustained push for recognition it got, however, and what of those smaller, riskier projects involving comparatively untested POC talent that have emerged over the past 18 months? Some simply wouldn't exist; others would surely have found that distributors and exhibitors were unwilling to take the chances on them they have in our reality. (One suspects the market would also have been swamped with films in which vanilla-white kids trip a very light fantastic.) October's hard-to-synopsise Blindspotting, a lightning bolt loosed from the zeitgeist, was one of those projects. The hellzapoppin' Sorry to Bother You is another roll of the dice entirely, starting out as a loony-toons tale of a lowly telemarketing drone's progress through an exaggerated version of the modern American service industry, then heading to places you couldn't easily pitch and even those of us who've seen the film can't really explain or say. The first of writer-director Boots Riley's achievements here, then, was to get people who might say no to say yes; he ends up smuggling into UK multiplexes the kind of scattershot corporate satire the far better placed Mike Judge failed to with his direct-to-video Office Space twenty years ago. That's something.
That progress seems all the greater when you consider that Riley's protagonist, Cassius "Cash" Green (Lakeith Stanfield), is black: his zigzagging career path opens up fresh angles on the theme of clockwatching drudgery. After a succession of busted sales calls, Cash improves his fortunes upon modulating his voice to sound white - the better to connect with his company's largely Caucasian clientele. This new voice is provided by David Cross, and there is something innately and consistently funny about hearing the wheedling tones of Tobias from Arrested Development coming from Stanfield's mouth. (Not even Cross would have chosen this voice.) Just as there's a voice behind Cash's voice, there's always something going on behind the film's jokes. Sometimes, yes, it's a pointed jab at the positions and stances non-white employees are forced to adopt within the unconsciously biased or institutionally racist superstructures that now loom over us all. More often than not, though, it's another joke, like the photocopier we spy malfunctioning behind Cash's workspace, or the gridiron players who appear behind his boss as he lands a carefully calculated promotion, or the TV shows that themselves provide a running commentary on the state of America today. The wacko soundtrack behind all that sounds like faulty plumbing at some moments, an accordion dropped off a fire escape at others; in one or two scenes, it's like listening to a conversation being held at the very limits of your hearing. What is this movie?
Well, on one level, Sorry to Bother You is following a familiar trajectory: it's the old Faustian tale of the naif whose fast-tracking to the top of his profession sees him jettisoning everything he once loved and stood for, then realising what's really of value. We soon twig scarf-wearing smoothie Armie Hammer, metabolising Messrs. Zuckerberg and Musk as the company's CEO, is up to no particular good, and we fear for Stanfield, who has a zonked, behind-the-beat quality even before he takes a whack on the head from a flying soda can. Yet Riley doodles right over the top of that movie, and in doing so, he obscures all its straight lines. "Stick to the script," Cash is told in his early days as a phone jockey, but a nonconformist like Riley can't and won't; he's one of those bored highschooler directors, taking felt pens to those dully yellowing texts passed down to him by the older boys. There isn't a scene that hasn't been accessorised in some way (in a just world, it would be a head-to-head between this and Black Panther for the Best Costume Oscar): everything and everyone gets dressed up, and either warped or weirded out. In the conventional, whitebread telling of these cautionary corporate tales, the love interest would be a sweet Helen Slater/Ginnifer Goodwin type waiting at home being constant and true; in the Rileyverse, the position is filled by Tessa Thompson as a Marina Abramovic-inspired performance artist, challenging her audience to throw junked cellphones and balloons filled with pig's blood at her as a comment on the West's exploitation of Africa. (Again, you chuckle, but there's a point.) That conventional telling certainly wouldn't go anywhere near the benighted creatures Cash uncovers massing in the back of the CEO's quarters, which is a sign - perhaps a warning sign - of how far out Sorry to Bother You gets.
Some may be thrown, but I felt this turn made sense within a world in which you feel anything could happen (or break loose) at any minute. For all that he follows his nose, Riley inserts a thread of story logic amid his erupting chaos: the entire second half could be the nightmare of a man suffering from a severe concussion, or an expressionist extension of a job market where employees are kept in a pen from nine to five and made subject to either the carrot or the stick. Riley is that rare thing: a filmmaker who appears to have actually spent time in the modern workplace - though he probably spent it scribbling over the health and safety guidelines. Looking back over the past two years, the significance of Moonlight winning Best Picture may be not just that it's permitted very different films by black creatives to reach wide audiences, but that it's allowed for the making of films that are radically different beasts on a scene-by-scene, half hour-by-half hour basis. Get Out and Blindspotting absolutely had that quicksilver quality, possibly born of a desire to make three or four films at once in a way minority directors have traditionally never had chance to; in that shifting and reshaping, we might see the genesis of a new identity for black-authored American cinema, at once more fluid and playful than the worthy New Black Cinema of the 1990s. Sorry to Bother You makes a lot of pertinent points about the crazy world we now inhabit, but you don't feel it was conceived as a grand statement, rather a party, a riot or a happening to which you and I happen to have been invited. Some guests may find the occasion too much; even I found myself wondering whether it was spiralling beyond Riley's control in places. Whatever else it is, though, it's alive.
Sorry to Bother You is now playing in selected cinemas.