Friday October 24, 1997
It's always a pleasant surprise to find something real and touching in a film. Even in one written by Joe Eszterhas. Especially in one written by Joe Eszterhas.
Recent credits like "Basic Instinct," "Showgirls," "Sliver" and "Jade" and their emphasis on eroticized violence have made Eszterhas perhaps the highest-paid screenwriter in today's Hollywood. But while it might be thought easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for Eszterhas to write a largely heartfelt film like "Telling Lies in America," he has done so with an unexpected degree of success.
Drawing on elements from his own youth growing up as a Hungarian refugee in Cleveland, Eszterhas and director Guy Ferland have come up with a poignant immigrant's tale set in that city in the early 1960s. Though it's hampered by numerous plot contrivances that are overly conventional and predictable, "Telling Lies" has an affecting emotional texture at its core that makes up for a lot.
The film is also strengthened by a pair of adroit lead performances by Brad Renfro and Kevin Bacon, actors who completely understand their characters and know how to make the most of them on screen.
Still only 15, Renfro is a remarkably instinctive performer who brought a natural intensity to films like "The Client" and "Sleepers." His Karchy Jonas is a 17-year-old senior on scholarship at Cleveland Latin High School. It's a Catholic school with upper-middle-class students who make life difficult for someone whose ever so slightly European demeanor and inflection mark him as an outsider.
More than anything, Karchy wants to be with it, to be cool. He loves the sound of rock 'n' roll music and has a crush on Diney Majeski (Calista Flockhart), the slightly older girl he works with at an after-school job. But whatever he wants, even the ability to pronounce "th" like a native-born American, seems fated to be always frustratingly beyond his reach.
The epitome of everything that Karchy thinks is worth having is rock jock Billy Magic (Bacon), the Joe Cool mainstay of WHK Radio. While the film lets us know that Billy is something of a con artist with a propensity for getting fired, Karchy sees things differently. To him, Billy's red Cadillac, hipster slang and callous manipulation of women represent all the promise of America, the new land.
Given how familiar a character this is, it says a lot for Bacon's energized, completely realized performance that he makes the hustling Billy as compelling a person as he does, equally believable as a role model for Karchy and in some of his less savory aspects.
It also turns out that Billy is on the lookout for a high school kid with some of Karchy's qualities. He calls the boy Chuckie and Slick, helps him with his wardrobe and in making that "all-important love connection" and even hires him as a gofer and assistant for $100 a week.
What Billy sees in Karchy, and it is the film's most telling element, is a facility for lying that's born out of a combination of embarrassment and shame. Karchy tells people he's going to Princeton when he's barely getting out of high school and answers, "Sure, lots of times," when asked if he's done anything he in fact hasn't. When Diney asks him why he has to show off so much, he replies with the melancholy truth, "I ain't got that much to show."
Going nowhere academically and with no more than vague ambitions of being a writer, Karchy thinks he's figured out how this country works. When his serious father (a small but indispensable performance by Maximilian Schell) asks why Billy pays him so much, Karchy tells him, "This is America, Pop." But one of the reasons "Telling Lies in America" is such an evocative title is that Karchy comes to see that he doesn't understand as much about either lying or America as he thinks he does.
Though director Ferland has a gentle, pleasant touch, there's not much he can do with "Telling Lies' " more hackneyed elements, like Karchy's fumbling encounters with sex, his nightmare date from hell with Diney and his friendship with a black classmate. Like Karchy, we just have to survive these disappointments in hopes of getting to the good stuff underneath.
One of the most pleasing elements of "Telling Lies in America" is its classic soundtrack of early '60s rock, nearly 20 songs on a par with "Lonely Teardrops," "Sleepwalk" and "Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop." They help make Eszterhas' trip back in time one that the rest of us can take pleasure in as well.
Telling Lies in America, 1997. PG-13 for sex-related situations. A Banner Entertainment production, in association with Kuzui Enterprises and Ben Myron Productions, released by Banner Entertainment. Director Guy Ferland. Producers Ben Myron, Fran Kuzui. Executive producers Brian Swardstrom, Mickey Liddel, Naomi Eszterhas. Screenplay Joe Eszterhas. Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos. Editor Jill Savitt. Costumes Laura Cunningham. Music Nicholas Pike. Production design James Gelarden. Set decorator Sarah Young. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Kevin Bacon as Billy Magic. Brad Renfro as Karchy Jonas. Maximilian Schell as Dr. Istvan Jonas. Calista Flockhart as Diney Majeski. Paul Dooley as Father Norton.