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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

Telling Lies in America Film Rating: B+

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, Jade, Basic 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
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