Death of a Telemarketer delivers some Lamorne Morris laughs but precious little else.
Actor Lamorne Morris has made a career out of playing characters whose charm paradoxically lies in their disingenuousness. Nothing that comes out of the man’s mouth seems the least bit sincere, yet his delivery is so smooth, and his wordplay so dexterous, that one can’t help but be seduced even as all logic cries foul. Writer-director Khaled Ridgeway’s Death of a Telemarketer takes full advantage of that poisonous charisma, casting Morris as Kasey Miller, a God-level telemarketer whose gift for gab has made him a legend in the offices of Telewin, where he peddles phone, Internet, and cable TV packages to susceptible stooges across the country. The man is entirely unable to turn off the bullshit, whether he is conversing with envious coworkers, his harridan of a boss (Gwen Gottlieb), or the girlfriend (Alisha Wainwright) with one foot out the door. A contest at work will guarantee him a bonus of $3,000, which is conveniently the same amount of money he needs to pay back a loan company by the end of the day. Yet as fate would have it, Kasey is off his game for the first time in his life, resulting in a loss that drives him to desperate measures, namely acquiring the infamous Do Not Call list and attempting to make one final sale. Naturally, Kasey contacts the wrong person, an older gentleman by the name of Asa Ellenbogen (Jackie Earle Haley) who has no patience for Kasey’s lies, and who returns the favor by showing up at the Telewin offices and holding him hostage. Asa demands only one thing of Kasey: if he can convince a single person on the Do Not Call list to accept his apology on behalf of telemarketers everywhere, then his life will be spared. If not, he gets a bullet between the eyes.
There’s a kernel of a good idea here in that Kasey’s fate ultimately hinges on him performing a task that requires the utmost sincerity, but one that can only be accomplished through channeling a persona that traffics in deception. As is made painstakingly clear in the film’s opening minutes, Kasey cares little for the individuals to which he is selling, making one pathetic promise after another to people who largely cannot afford the services he is providing. And so, according to this profound relatability, Death of a Telemarketer plays a little like wish fulfillment, as anyone with a phone can relate to Asa’s frustration at these seemingly indestructible individuals who call at all hours of the day and care only for the potential dollar signs on the other end of the line. Unfortunately, Asa’s character is written so broadly that any sort of potential sympathy is dispensed with immediately. Instead, the film ultimately becomes a morality play, a tale of personal redemption for a protagonist who is forced to find his humanity in the most dire of circumstances.
If you think that sounds suitably dull, you’d be correct, and the majority of the film’s back-half is a two-hander between Morris and Haley, neither of whom are capable of selling the melodramatics the script requires of them, an irony seemingly lost on the filmmakers. Ridgeway’s direction is fairly straightforward, although he does occasionally use a disorienting wide-angle lens, which serves no purpose other than to draw attention to itself. An overreliance on utilizing shots of sped-up L.A. traffic to link together disparate scenes comes across as rather amateurish, as does the overly generic score. Morris is the best thing the film has going for it, his improv skills put to the test in nearly every scene, scoring laughs a not insignificant amount of the time, and certainly higher than the median that most performers can muster. But despite his successful batting average in this regard, he’s given precious little else to do for the majority of the film’s runtime, which seems to be spinning its wheels for long sections until its foregone conclusion. Death of a Telemarketer is ultimately all talk, little substance. It’s safe to say that Arthur Miller does not appreciate the shout-out.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | December 2021.