November 21, 1997 in Seven

Joe Eszterhas Takes A Surprising Turn In ‘Telling Lies In America’

Kenneth Turan Los Angeles Times
 

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.

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.

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.

xxxx

“Telling Lies in America”

Location: Lincoln Heights Cinema Art

Credits: Directed by Guy Ferland, starring Kevin Bacon, Brad Renfro, Maximilian Schell, Calista Flockhart, Paul Dooley

Running time: 1:40

Rating: PG-13

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