While effective at first, Khaled Ridgeway’s feature debut goes from dark comedy to conventional sappiness.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Austin Film Festival.)
Lying isn’t just a business for Kasey Miller (Lamorne Morris)—it’s a way of life. Working as a telemarketer, he does whatever it takes to sell potential customers on his companies’ over-expensive cable & phone services. Miller’s turned his job into a lucrative gig, but he still needs some extra cash to pay off a loan shark. To get that moolah, Miller sneaks into work after hours and starts calling up people on the company’s Do Not Call list.
One of those individuals is Ash Ellenbogen (Jackie Earle Haley). He reacts to getting called up by a telemarketer in the dead of night in a rational fashion; by showing up to Miller’s work, tying him up, and holding him at gunpoint. Ellenbogen wants to give Miller a shot at redemption. This scammer is now going to have to contact people on the Do Not Call list and ask for their forgiveness. If he doesn’t get their forgiveness, well, that’s what the gun is for.
With his debut in Death of a Telemarketer, writer/director Khaled Ridgeway uses dark comedy to skewer the world of telemarketing. Often, this proves more profane than humorous. Just look at any jokes hinging on sex or characters screaming profanity. Yet, the bleak gags tied to the world of telemarketing do manage to hit their target.
Particularly cutting is a sequence where audio of Miller manipulating an elderly woman goes viral on the Internet. His boss’s reaction to this is to make it the new model for how all employees should behave. These people only think of the increased exposure the viral video will bring, not how it reflects their business practices. It’s a tragically timely microcosm of how capitalistic corporations see human beings as just consumers and not, well, human beings.
As Death of a Telemarketer goes on, it trades out Mike Judge-esque social commentary for a tête-à-tête between Morris and Haley. Both are good enough performers to keep your attention during the restrained proceedings. Haley, especially, is put to great use here. Haley especially is great at merging an imposing screen presence with grounded details. A Southern drawl voice and flashes of vulnerability (like Ellenbogen’s offhand mention that his blood sugar is shot) make Haley’s performance richly detailed.
However, even these two performers cannot carry a whole movie. Ridgeway’s script struggles to keep the momentum going. Scenes between Miller and Ellenbogen begin to blend together. The social commentary grows simpler and less engaging. Meanwhile, limiting so much of the movie to one location with two characters doesn’t bring out much visual imagination on the part of Ridgeway. His filmmaking remains frustratingly pedestrian throughout.
It’s almost like a wholly different screenwriter took the script on around the 65-minute mark.
Worst of all, though, is how the third act of Death of a Telemarketer betrays its earlier darker instincts. In the final twenty minutes, Ridgeway’s script lays on the treacle hard with big sweeping emotional declarations and tidy character resolutions. These attempts at pathos are puzzling and tonally disconnected from the rest of the movie. It’s almost like a wholly different screenwriter took the script on around the 65-minute mark.
However, this nosedive into syrupy territory proves especially clumsy on a character level. Figures like Kasey Miller are at their best functioning as vessels for dark comedy. They’re not people one can invest any emotional connections into. This makes moments intended to tug on the heartstrings ones where you wonder how the movie ended up here.
If only Death of a Telemarketer had the confidence to follow its darkest creative instincts all the way through. There are glimmers of incisive perspectives on the telemarketing profession here. Certainly, the assembled cast could handle more brutal material. Instead, it starts out like a Bobcat Goldthwait movie before ending as an after-school special.