Site created 12/15/97.
review added: 1/18/01
Telling Lies in America
1997 (2000) - Fox Lorber
review by Brian Ford Sullivan of
The Digital Bits
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): D+/C-/D-
Specs and Features
101 mins, R, full screen (1.33:1), single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep
case packaging, theatrical trailer, production notes, cast and crew bios,
film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (8 chapters), languages:
English (DD 2.0) subtitles: none
Stories about adolescence always
seem to gravitate to issues of loneliness and belonging, and rightly so -
there's never a time in our lives when a simple word or look by another person
can mean so much to us. Such is the case of Telling
Lies in America, Joe Eszterhas's (yes, that Joe Eszterhas)
semi-autobiographical tale of a teenager who emigrates from Hungary to the U.S.
in the 1960s. Brad Renfro plays Karchy Jonas, a soft-spoken Cleveland high
schooler who struggles to adjust to American culture. His idol is Billy Magic
(Kevin Bacon), the newest deejay at the local radio station - a charming,
confident womanizer (the complete opposite of Karchy's shy and bashful
demeanor). Making matters worse is his deep Hungarian accent, which makes it
difficult for him to say simple words like "the." He copes by making
up things about himself in hopes of impressing others (like a local girl, played
by a pre-Ally McBeal Calista Flockhart)
and avoiding ridicule by his classmates and instructors.
Karchy sees his opportunity to gain popularity by entering a "Hall of Fame"
contest, sponsored by Billy Magic's radio station, the winner of which gets to
spend an afternoon with Magic himself. The only trouble is, the winner is chosen
by the students themselves, making it unlikely that Karchy will be selected.
Realizing this, Karchy forges the students' signatures and wins, thus securing a
chance to meet his idol. It's here that the film really begins, as Karchy is
brought under the wing of Magic and his lessons in life begin.
Billy helps Karchy in every facet of his struggle to belong - whether it be
advice on how to correct his accent or how to talk to girls. We soon start to
realize Magic's purposes for Karchy aren't exactly clandestine. You see, in the
1960s it was common practice for record producers to pay off radio stations so
that they would play their artists' songs. By using Karchy as his unwitting
middleman, Billy removes himself from all chances of being caught (since Karchy
is underage and cannot be punished under the law). It's also a test for Karchy -
since he willingly lied about the contest to meet Billy, would he also lie to
protect his mentor? This thread comes to a head when Karchy introduces Billy to
a friend with a ton of musical talent in hopes of having Billy help sign him
with a record producer (something that obviously could make Billy a wealthy man
if he took advantage of the kid). Ultimately, it will test how far Billy and
Karchy's relationship can be pushed.
Eszterhas and director Guy Ferland do an outstanding job of making this story
feel very personal. Karchy's story has an "everyman" take to it, but
there's no denying that there's an intangible quality only those deeply affected
by the material can bring out. It's that facet that's extraordinarily engaging.
Certainly, we've seen all sorts of mentor relationships in films (most notably
in Scent of a Woman and
Good Will Hunting), but here it doesn't
feel derivative at all. Making matters even better are Bacon and Renfro, who
pull off two of their best performances. Bacon's Billy Magic is played with a
head-first dive into the character. Some might accuse Bacon of hamming it up,
but as is later revealed in the film, there's a purpose to the way he acts.
Renfro's Karchy is filled with restraint and awkwardness. Again, it's all quite
engaging. It's best to describe this film as an examination on what we think is
"cool" when we are young, fully unaware of the consequences and
realities of those who are viewed as "cool." Ultimately, as we see
behind the great and powerful Billy Magic, we also see how meaningless our
attempts to change who we are for the sake of popularity are in the end.
I wish I had the same praise for the DVD itself as I do for the film, but no
such luck. Fox Lorber's release commits the cardinal sin of DVD - offering only
a full frame (1:33:1) image. Even worse is the transfer, which made me think I
was watching my VHS copy of the film. Outside of the obvious cropping that
results from pan & scan, there's simply too many scenes that are either out
of focus or oversaturated. Going hand in hand with the VHS quality transfer is
the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track - something that handicaps a film where music
is of prime importance to the characters. Bacon himself wrote the key track,
Medium Rare, and little justice is done to
it by the audio. Certainly this isn't a film that needs to access every audio
sensation in the human ear. Nevertheless, it's obvious the film deserved a
better treatment in this area.
Considering the autobiographical nature of the film, a director and/or
screenwriter commentary would have been welcome on this disc, however none is
present here. Only a trailer (also in full frame) and production notes on the
film are included. Overall though, this disc release of Telling
Lies in America certainly falls under the category of, "Well...
at least it's out on DVD."
For a man whose resume contains Burn Hollywood Burn,
Instinct and of course Showgirls,
you have to wonder how Joe Eszterhas can find such a moving and (in places)
touching script inside himself. It seems that he hasn't entirely sold his soul
to the Devil for his success, as no person can be entirely all bad when he can
put the words and ideas he has into this story.
Brian Ford Sullivan