It’s taken a very long time for the term “economic inequality” to approach popular usage, but we seem to be getting there at last. Gig-worker business models, government policies and the declining power of unions have contributed to many Americans’ feeling the deck is stacked against them in ways that the old-school values of enterprise, thrift and even education can no longer override.
Still, as urgent as the issue is, it’s not easily dramatized — not without sticking to the still-sexy malfeasance of high-end wrongdoers in movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “The Big Short.” Noah Hutton’s “Lapsis” manages to meet that challenge in entertainingly original terms, however. This tale of a floundering gig-economy worker straddles both the bleak present-tense reality of Ken Loach’s “Sorry We Missed You” and the subversive near-future political satire of Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” while arriving at a whimsical critique all its own.
Cult status in the general realm of “Office Space” and “Idiocracy” is assured, with potential for some degree of more immediate sleeper success — few movies have come anywhere near addressing the various economic fears we’ve all had too much time to think about during shutdown. Buoyed by virtual screenings at several international fests (including Sarajevo and Fantasia) following the cancellation of its SXSW premiere, Film Movement plans a November release to U.S. theaters and virtual cinemas.
Middle-aged schlub Ray (Dean Imperial), a product of Queens aptly described as having a “Seventies mobster vibe” (more due to his greasy presentation than any actual menace) is struggling to get by, even without a wife or kids to support. He does have younger half-brother Jamie (Babe Howard), who’s afflicted with a mystery fatigue-syndrome ailment called Omnia. Ray is committed to getting little bro into a pricey treatment clinic. But that’s not going to happen on his wages driving for a sketchy airport lost-luggage delivery service.
He’s attracted by the promises of “well paid jobs … and a breath of fresh air!” from CBLR, one of several monopolistic companies
that hire independent contractors to lay cable for a new generation of “quantum” personal computers. Naturally, there’s no base salary or benefits involved. Nonetheless, the promise of money to be made in one’s free time is irresistible — to many, in what we’re subtly given to understand is a time of ever-rising costs and ever-decreasing household income.
As a result, there’s a long waitlist even for beginner slots. So Ray reluctantly turns to the somewhat shady Felix (James McDaniel), who can provide the needed taxi-like CBLR worker medallion in return for a cut of the take. Our paunchy hero is no outdoorsman, and a technophobe besides, so he’s more than a little challenged getting up to speed on his first “cabling adventure.” This involves being ferried out to upstate woods, where he must string fiber-optic lines across hill and dale while using an app to follow the correct route and tally progress. There’s a certain community spirit among fellow weekend campers following the same program, all of them assigned user handles. But the monicker Ray inherited not-quite-legally from some prior medallion holder gives others pause, when not triggering outright hostility.
It takes him a while to realize that this notorious “Lapsis Beeftech” was a traitor, devising means by which the corporate minders could undercut individual cablers’ earnings. But that association also makes Ray privy to lucrative high-level routes normally inaccessible to newbies. Anxious to bankroll Jamie’s escalating treatment costs, he pushes himself, meanwhile developing an alliance with experienced fieldworker Anna (Madeline Wise). She turns out to be linked to his well-connected antecedent — as well as a network of activist contractors hoping to force the company into better treatment of its laborers.
Documentarian Hutton’s first narrative feature (not counting his contribution to 2017 omnibus “Mosaic”) is admirably free of formula, combining a kind of lo-fi sci-fi (in CBLR’s Big Brother-ish omniscience and moderately futuristic technology) with down-to-earth blue collar characterizations and light comedic absurdism. We’re not meant to find the logistics of this whole tech-sector pyramid scheme credible in literal terms, involving as it does snaking miles of above-ground cable through parklands, then plugging them into giant silver cubes. But we’re definitely in the real world when it’s noted that “CEOs and shareholders get rich on our backs,” even as the laborers suffer grueling conditions à la Amazon warehouses, and sub-living-wage recompense à la Uber or numerous other 21st-century entities one might name.
That the workers score at least a temporary win at the end is probably the film’s farthest stretch of fantasy. It rings a bit false, particularly as it’s one place where the drolly muted tenor of Hutton’s otherwise inventive script and confident direction might’ve usefully yielded to some more flamboyant stroke.
Still, that slightly underwhelming fade-out doesn’t diminish the pleasure of the whole, with its antic blend of the pastoral (upstate forest locales prettily shot by d.p. Mike Gomes), slapstick, and politically empathetic. As the performers maintain a relative poker face, the film’s satire is largely a matter of tone and implication. Not the least contributor in that regard is Hutton’s own original score, by turns antic and otherworldly. His editing maintains an unhurried but lively pace, while other tech and design contributions are resourceful.