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Telemarketers

“Telemarketers” deserves your time for being that rare bird of documentaries: a filmmaker’s personal story captured over many years (in this case, 22), fueled by the need to get a bizarre experience on camera. The footage can be molded into a narrative later. Years before he was a documentarian, Sam Lipman-Stern recorded his time working for a New Jersey telemarketing agency in the late 2000s, sitting in a cubicle with a headset, raising money for shady charities and the employer who pocketed most of the funds, known then as Civic Development Group. 

Lipman-Stern’s footage, and the new interviews here with co-workers that are like a class reunion, keep the story’s view eye-to-eye and nonjudgmental, which is essential. “Telemarketers” is all lived-in experience from a world you probably didn’t imagine was on the other end of the line. With material that only someone in Lipman-Stern's chair could capture, the three-episode Max docuseries puts scammers into full humanizing color, whisking us to a messed-up-but-functional Oz for hustling scumbags who needed a job. The term “scumbags” is used with love in this saga. 

As the former employees who speak here tell it, every day was a new adventure in their workplace, and every other person was a drug dealer. CDG used to recruit from halfway homes, and they'd hire ex-convicts who only needed to be able to read scripts and use rebuttals. It didn't matter if the place became unsafe or too raucous; it was just about hitting quotas. Lipman-Stern has plenty of footage of himself on the line, lying to people who think they're giving to charity; there's also clips of co-workers drinking, showing their butts, or doing drugs. We glimpse this greasy gold in the excellent first episode, an introduction to a batch of memorable faces and names ("Mr. Smythe"). They're all so charismatic and wonderfully weird that you could almost forget they were helping their employers steal.

The telemarketers say they were at the "bottom of society," but they're wrong: they weren't as low as those behind the scams enacted by CDG and copycat companies who used the same scripts and tactics. The calls would be made in the name of charities (for veterans, cancer patients, families of police, etc.), and the money would rarely go where it was originally stated. But companies like CDG were only acting as a third party. A larger scam arises in the middle of "Telemarketers," but it's best revealed within the story, to most feel the whiplash of irony and jaw-dropping greed.

Since he first put CDG antics videos on YouTube, Lipman-Stern's documentation has wanted to demystify and destroy this workplace. As the timeline of "Telemarketers" presents his own growth from CDG and beyond, Lipman-Stern uses his experience and footage to seriously dig into this scam and its participants. But he couldn't do this without his energetic best friend and co-worker, Pat Pespas. In the not-so-glory days, we see Pat snort coke before making calls, and he's often referred to throughout the journey as “Pat F**kin Pespas!” (with a warm tone). If executive producers Josh and Benny Safdie would be perfect to adapt this story, so would executive producer Danny McBride to play Pespas, a one-of-a-kind fixture we see in so many different somber shades. Pespas is a loved legend in this world, a driven, passionate guy who can be his own worst enemy. In its nuanced way of embracing its subjects, "Telemarketers" gets a heavier layer in presenting a friendship with an addict over some rocky years. 

Pat and Lipman-Stern seek more information and justice against their employer’s employers, beginning a wayward, years-leaping journey that makes up the second half of "Telemarketers." Pat even goes back undercover to the world of telemarketing and goes "Michael Moore style," confronting complicit figures in public who won't return Pat and Lipman-Stern's calls. It's part of the comedy and its character study, with Pat donning a golf cap and sunglasses. Still, it's not the best resource for narrative momentum. Sometimes the adventures of Pat and Sam (and co-director Adam Bhala Lough, who joins later in the shoot) have the air of simply futzing around and seeing just how many people won't speak to them. But beholding the dedication and specific knowledge of those trying to challenge the system is what counts most here.

As much as you want "Telemarketers" to have a more direct focus for its David v. Goliath exposé, it's not about that, and sometimes that is frustrating. But because we see it all with such humanizing honesty, Lipman-Stern's intricate care for this world and its greatest injustices becomes our own. By the end of Lipman-Stern's journey, "Telemarketers" has given scumbags like Pat an authentic voice, and it's not trying to rip you off. 

Full series screened for review. The first episode of "Telemarketers" is now playing on Max, with new episodes on August 20 and 27th. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Telemarketers movie poster

Telemarketers (2023)

Rated NR

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Co-director

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