Much of the past 10 years or so of indie cinema has played like a lot of low-budget auditions for filmmakers yearning to go mainstream. That’s not a knock against the few who have made it or their accoladed films — it is nearly impossible to make something good enough to gain that foothold. And then you get the occasional entrenched director like David O. Russell winning the most prestigious indie awards for a mainstream-but-quirky film populated by A-list actors, as happened in 2013 when Silver Linings Playbook, with its $21 million production budget, swept the Independent Spirit Awards. So what the hell is indie cinema, anyway? What is its actual purpose? A launching pad for Hollywood or an anti-Hollywood space for cinematic experimentation? Can it be both?
Those are the questions I was asking myself before I first saw The Coup frontman Boots Riley’s profoundly hilarious and disturbing and shocking and stirring directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You. I will be very clear with you, dear readers, that this surrealist comic moral tale — about a poor man selling his soul to ascend in a golden elevator to the heights of a dubious corporation — is a balls-to-the-wall, tits-to-the-glass spectacular orgy of fist-pumping anti-capitalist, pro-labor ideas rolled into 105 minutes of gloriously unpredictable plot. And just when you thought the film couldn’t get any more bizarre, it verges suddenly into science fiction. This, my friends, is indie cinema.
Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) bunks in his uncle’s Oakland garage. He’s so poor that he measures his gas tank fill-ups in jingle change. “Forty on two,” he tells the cashier, tossing three coins on the counter. Still, his provocative artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), sticks by his side, ride or die — Cash may be broke but he’s still got his heart and his values. That all changes when Cash gets a job at a call center and becomes the best telemarketer in the building, thanks to his cubicle-mate Langston (Danny Glover) giving him the secret to success: Use your “white voice.” From then on, whenever Cash makes a call, the nasally tones of comedian David Cross emit from his mouth. Speaking whitely, he wheedles people on the other end of the line into buying whatever the hell it is that he’s selling; he doesn’t care what the product is, just as long as someone’s paying.
Meanwhile, Detroit takes a job at the call center, too, where there’s talk of a union brewing, led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun). Cash’s rise to wealth within the company separates him from his friends, and Riley’s depiction of the clan of elite assholes at the top is sheer brilliance. If you thought Silicon Valley’s skewering of tech bros was cutting, Riley’s version of a Bay Area capitalist asshole is diced up with a block of QVC-sold Ginsu knives: messy and satisfyingly shredded.
There really is a golden elevator only the biggest sellers of the company can take, and inside that elevator, Kate Berlant’s Diana DeBauchery pumps up these “power callers” with vigorous platitudes that assure them of their masculine power. And at the top of the top of this pyramid-scheming empire is one man, Steve Lift, a coke-sniffing imbecile rich boy played by a transcendently evil Armie Hammer, who here comes close to the spirit of the old gleefully erratic performances of Bill Paxton. Steve is a petulant child in the body of a man bedecked with many fashion scarves. Though the guy is total trash, the media dotes on him, allowing him to sincerely apologize again and again for the travesties this billionaire disruptor has inflicted upon the world, such as his company Worry Free, which offers the broke room and board for life in exchange for indentured servitude. Oh God, we are so fucked.
He, of course, brings to mind titans like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, which is why, when I saw this film at Sundance, I declared that I would punch myself in the face if Amazon bought and distributed the film. (Annapurna stepped up instead.)
Amid all the chaos of the corporate sphere, Riley is also satirizing the outside world and Americans’ appetite for our own destruction. We see snippets of a wildly popular TV show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me, wherein contestants are beat to a pulp for a chunk of change and a fleeting bit of fame. These asides might be taken as tangents, and the plot’s developments at times could seem tenuous, but I found them totally daring and confident, as though Riley knew the rules of every screenwriting guide and the demand for “realism,” and he said, “Nah, I’m good,” because he had bigger points to make with a scene or character. So I reveled in what some viewers might consider “mistakes.”
Stanfield, though his contribution is ginormous, exudes the easy charm and sensitivity of Bill Murray and the nuanced comic delivery of early Eddie Murphy, and I hope his succession of great roles after this film, Get Out and Atlanta does not end, but he’ll need creators as daring as Riley for that.
There’s an adage among filmmakers that your first feature better be your calling card, your id laid bare on the page and screen, because you’ll never be more daring, more yourself, than you were then. Whether or not Riley goes mainstream, he has shot his shot with Sorry to Bother You, a film bleeding with the passion and energy of a director who desires to make, above all else, a revolution, not just a movie.