Boots Riley wraps a devastating critique of capitalism and racism in the US in a funny and entertaining cautionary tale, while Robert Redford bows out in style in his final screen role
Sorry To Bother You (15) *****
The Old Man & the Gun (12A) ****
Released in the US without too much fanfare this past summer, musician-turned-filmmaker Boots Riley’s debut feature Sorry To Bother You has become a genuine phenomenon; a punky Sundance outlier transformed by word-of-mouth into the buzziest movie of the year. That’s appropriate given one of the many interlinked themes in this wild and audacious satirical side-swipe at racial politics and unfettered capitalism in 21st century America is the power of grassroots movements. But it’s also a mark of Riley’s sheer narrative chutzpah that the film never feels didactic as it crams a semester’s worth of radical politics into its swift 100-minute running time.
Starting as a wry take-down of prejudice in the work place, the film introduces us to its broke black protagonist, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), as he’s living in his uncle’s garage with his artist/activist girlfriend Detroit (Creed’s Tessa Thompson). Politically aware, but not politically active, he’s the sort of feckless millennial who’ll push back against demands for rent with half-hearted rhetoric about greedy landlords, even though the person demanding it is a charitable family member going above and beyond the call of duty by tolerating his post-adolescent existential funk. But with said uncle (played by Terry Crews) also facing eviction, Cash is soon forced to get a job. This being a heightened alternate version of contemporary Oakland – where opportunities for non-coders are thin on the ground and gentrification is making it too expensive to live – he ends up working in a call centre that will literally hire anyone who can operate a phone and stick to the script.
Metaphorically speaking, sticking to the script is the last thing Riley is interested in doing as he comes up with inventive visual ways to convey the intrusive nature of Cash’s new job while upping the ante further by having Cash learn from a veteran colleague (a sly turn from Danny Glover) that he has a better chance of rising through the corporate ranks if he uses his “white voice” to make sales. That voice turns out to be a ludicrously exaggerated nasal twang, one that riffs on comedy routines dating back to Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. It’s a gag that also a featured in the recent BlacKkKlansman, but Riley takes it further by having white comedian and actor David Cross supply the voice while Stanfield imperfectly lip-synchs his lines. Not only does this exaggerate its performative aspect, it seeds ideas about what constitutes an authentic voice that the film returns to as Cash finds himself quickly climbing the corporate ladder while his left-behind colleagues (led by Steven Yeun) start agitating for change.
But it’s when the film expands its scope to explore the dehumanising cost of a tech-dominated, profit-driven society (represented by a supremely odious turn from Armie Hammer) that it gets more surreal, more outrageous, more disturbing and more imaginative. Originally published in screenplay form by Dave Eggers in McSweeney’s Quarterly back in 2014 (when Riley was struggling to get it made), the film does have stylistic echoes of Spike Lee and Spike Jonze. (It also has an amusing homage to Michel Gondry that plays like Riley’s own meta-critique of what the filmmaking equivalent of his own “white voice” might be like). There are thematic parallels too with Jordan Peele’s social horror film Get Out and Paul Beatty’s Man Booker-winning novel The Sellout. But Riley’s willingness to be true to the ideas he’s exploring ensures it transcends any influences to become a singular work of gonzo brilliance in its own right.
As one new cinematic voice emerges with Sorry to Bother You, another retreats with The Old Man & the Gun, which marks the final screen appearance of Robert Redford, who, at 80, confirmed in August he was retiring from acting, if not from movies (he’s still got Sundance to oversee, documentaries to make and, potentially more features to direct). Unlike peers Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman, though, he’s opted to go out on a thoughtfully considered high with an impish performance as real life gentleman bank robber Forrest Tucker, whose crime spree at the grand-old age of 76 beguiled the police and the FBI back in 1980.
Adapted from David Grann’s New Yorker article by A Ghost Story writer/director David Lowery, the resulting film is flat-out charming, a movie stripped of the usual clichés about ageing (it’s a world away from the recent Michael Caine dud King of Thieves) and shot with the retro feel of a New Hollywood classic. That means Lowery gives over plenty of time to his actors, starting with Redford and Sissy Spacek, cast here as a rancher called Jewel who meets Forrest when her car breaks down and he stops to help. What follows as they get to know one other over coffee in a diner is so outrageously flirty it rivals Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga for screen chemistry. Lowery keeps this going through much of the film, which cuts between Forrest’s illegal pursuits and the police investigation into who this man really is. The latter is led by appropriately monikered detective John Hunt (nicely played by Lowery regular Casey Affleck) whose obsession with Forrest is fuelled by the indignity of not realising he was
in one of the banks at the exact moment Forrest was robbing it. But far from this being a typical destructive journey, he finds himself slowly dragged out of his own midlife crisis by Forrest’s irrepressible joie de vivre – something this film has in spades. ■