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Basic Lies

Telling Lies in America
Cadillac Deserters: Brad Renfro (left) and Kevin Bacon face down Cleveland in the coming-of-age drama 'Telling Lies in America.'

Growing up with Joe Eszterhas

By Richard von Busack

FIFTIES MUSIC in movies is often used to contrast the supposed innocence of the country as it was then with the colder, harder America of today. In Telling Lies in America, a soundtrack full of American Graffiti-era pop serves up a different contrast: between lively, passionate music and calculating, softball moviemaking. It's the coming-of-age story of Karchy Jonas (Brad Renfro, of Sleepers), the adolescent son of a Hungarian immigrant growing up in Cleveland in about 1960. Jonas is bewitched by rock music and radio DJ Billy Magic (Kevin Bacon); he hates school and has a crush on his co-worker at the West End Market, Diney (played by the inept Calista Flockhart, of the overpraised TV show Ally McBeal).

The scriptwriter is Joe Eszterhas, also a Clevelander and a Hungarian immigrant who would have been 17 in 1961. The film does little more than show us how Karchy learns to love situational ethics--an indication that this is the portrait of an artist who later would write Basic Instinct and Showgirls. When Bacon's Magic admiringly calls the young kid "slicker than two snakes screwing in a barrel of snot," the real-life identification becomes even stronger.

The ending is repugnant. The immigrant kid's corruption is both rewarded and blamed on his new country. Thanks to Maximilian Schell's corny performance as Karchy's moral paragon of a father, we're supposed to believe that back in Hungary--as opposed to the U.S.--wrong was wrong and right was right. But wouldn't some of those immigrants have brought the knowledge of how to duck and weave with them? (Movies would be as morally monochromatic as Victorian theater if it hadn't been for canny Central European exiles such as Ernst Lubitsch, Erich von Stroheim and Billy Wilder.) Directed by Guy Ferland (The Babysitter), the picture is slow and static, and only the Cleveland locations arouse any real interest.

Telling Lies in America (R; 101 min.), directed by Guy Ferland, written by Joe Eszterhas, photographed by Reynaldo Villalobos and starring Kevin Bacon and Brad Renfro.

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From the Oct. 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro.

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