Inessential Essentials: Revisiting Joe Eszterhas's Telling Lies in America
The film: Telling Lies in America (1997)
Why It's An Inessential Essential: Two years after Showgirls got screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct, Burn Hollywood Burn: An Alan Smithee Film) blacklisted, the wily self-promoter returned with Telling Lies in America. Lies, based on a semi-autobiographical story, is somewhat similar to Showgirls in that they have common themes. Both films treat selling out and deception as an integral part of getting ahead in show business. But Lies, directed by Guy Ferland, is obviously not as garishly sarcastic as Showgirls is (few films are...). It's refreshing in that sense to see Eszterhas show genuine affection for his con men and hucksters in Lies rather than alternately mock and then half-heartedly show affection for his desperate protagonists.
Set in heartland America during 1960, Telling Lies in America stars a young Brad Renfro as Karchy, a high school-aged immigrant that dreams of becoming a disc jockey. Karchy hates the catholic school his father Dr. Istvan Jones (the ever-reliable Maximilian Schell) has sent him to and is, as stiff-necked Father Norton (Paul Dooley) delights in reminding him, on the verge of flunking out. Karchy's dream of becoming a disc jockey is his ticket away from his mundane troubles and possibly even his means of scoring with older woman Diney Majeski (Ally McBeal star Calista Flockhart). Thankfully, DJ Billy Magic (a winningly sleazy Kevin Bacon) is looking for a young dupe/assistant. Johnny and Karchy, who changes his name to Chucky, are thus able to form a symbiotic relationship. They each lie and take advantage of each other but not necessarily with malicious intent.
All praise is due to Eszterhas, whose name is plastered on Lies's opening credits (though "Joe Eszterhas Presents" undoubtedly didn't mean what Eszterhas wanted it to mean at the time), for giving an ostentatiously moral bildungsroman an appreciable level of sophistication. Everybody cheats everybody else in Lies, even Diney, a female protagonist that Eszterhas allows to be intelligently ambivalent about her relationship with Karchy. Thanks to Eszterhas's sensitive scenario and Flockhart's semi-nuanced performance, Diney isn't a tease but rather just uncertain about what she wants.
Magic is similarly complex. He starts out as a loser scrounging for work but never once blows his cool so much that he shouts or pouts his way out of a confrontation. The affection Eszterhas has for his characters is salient and it makes Telling Lies in America proof that he's not just coasting on the reputation he got from working with Paul Verhoeven.
How the Blu-Ray Makes the Case for the Film: The only special feature on Shout! Factory's Blu-Ray release of Telling Lies in America is a B-feature of Traveller, another 1997 drama about, well, telling lies in America! Bill Paxton and a very young Mark Wahlberg co-star as Bokky and Pat, a pair of grifters that are also members of a community called, "travellers."
Against the advice of his fellow travelers, Bokky takes Pat in and the two form a father-son bond. Bokky and Pat's relationship is one of several ways that Traveller is more generic than the idiosyncratically thoughtful Telling Lies in America. In Traveller, Bokky makes the same mistakes that got Pat's biological father killed, including falling in love with one of his own marks (Juliana Margulies!). Pat thus has to save Bokky, his surrogate dad, from his own worst impulses.
Traveller therefore suggests that being jaded is a good thing, which decidedly sets it apart from the relatively straight-laced Lies. Still, the two films make a good double feature as they both feature snappy dialogue and similarly polished takes on very seedy characters.
Simon Abrams is a NY-based freelance film critic whose work has been featured in outlets like The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Vulture and Esquire. Additionally, some people like his writing, which he collects at Extended Cut.