Movie Review: The morbid fascination of 1997’s “Telling Lies in America”

Maybe it was my recent viewing/reviewing of the “‘Showgirls’ Reconsidered'” documentary “You Don’t Nomi” that stopped me in my channel-surfing tracks when I saw the name “Joe Eszterhas” on the credits to a movie I’d missed.

Yes, “Telling Lies in America” has Kevin Bacon in it, and yes, it’s about radio in the Golden Age of disc jockeying (the early ’60s), both of which pique my interest.

But for morbid fascination, there’s nothing quite like reconsidering the blustery, BS-flinging, self-promoting Hollywood “type” that Eszterhas, who scripted “Showgirls” and “Jagged Edge” and “Basic Instinct” and “Flashdance” and “Sliver” and “Jade,” might be the best representative of.

His scripts were “high concept” gimmicky, often violent, drenched with “forbidden fruit” sexuality and lurid settings and/or characters that various directors exploited to the hilt in the vapid ’80s lingering into the ’90s. And Eszterhas made sure we knew who “wrote” them, a self promoting blowhard in the Bret Ratner/Weinstein/Bigelow/Seagal/Wahlberg or Cameron mold, a “type” that’s been obvious in Hollywood since being fictionalized in “What Makes Sammy Run?” way back in filmdom’s “Golden Age.”

A little talent, a lot of bragging and an endless blizzard of often self-mythologizing lies can take you far in showbusiness. Always has, always will.

“Telling Lies,” a semi-autobiographical tale of an immigrant lad (Brad Renfro) coming of age in Cleveland in the early 1960s, was pretty much the end of the line for “the highest paid screenwriter in America,” as Eszterhas billed himself then and even now.

The career-crippling debacle of “Showgirls,” his infamous feud with the then “the most powerful man (agent) in Hollywood,” Michael Ovitz, meant that the hustling newspaper reporter turned screenwriter could only land a no-name director and almost zero distribution for this self-indulgent “portrait.” Nobody saw it.

Eszterhas had only the ignominy of the self-produced “Burn, Hollywood Burn: An Alan Smithee” film yet to come, putting the final nail in his Hollywood coffin while at the same time, once and for all puncturing the balloon of the myth he’d invented to surround himself.

But here’s the script where he tried to “explain” himself — foreign-born striver, a bullied nobody who wants to be somebody, a teen who has a little trouble with English (something Brad Renfro, playing the Eszterhas-ish Karchy Jonas, fails to get across) and absolutely no trouble at all lying on the fly.

This is the “real” Eszterhas? I can totally see it.

Karchy’s dream is to get into the “Students Hall of Fame” that new DJ in town Billy Magic (Bacon) pushes on his radio show, a popularity contest that a kid like Karchy was born to “fix.” As we’ve seen Billy skulk into town like a snail leaving a slime trail, we know they’re destined to be together.

That’s the way of Eszterhas scripts. Things just “are.” They’re fated. They don’t have to make any sense. A dirty DJ fired from stations all over America? Sure, fella. Take evenings and weekends in a powerhouse station in the Birthplace of Rock’n Roll.

Karchy’s dad, the woefully miscast Maximilian Schell (25 years too old to be this kid’s dad, and acting like it), used to be “a doctor” back in the Old Country (Eastern Europe). Now, father and son dream of passing the test to become American citizens.

One person standing in the way of that is the priest (Paul Dooley) of the pricey Catholic school Karchy attends. He’s wise to the kid’s endless lies. It doesn’t help that the rich jock (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) mercilessly bullies the kid. Karchy cuts classes and is on the verge of flunking out.

He’s equally sloppy at his after-school job, in the poultry department at a big market, where he pines for “slightly” older woman Diney (Calista Flockhart, on the cusp of “Ally McBeal”) and ignores the hectoring of his boss (Luke Wilson).

Karchy’s go-to bluff; at school, work or being interviewed for an “assistant” job with Billy Magic, is “Sure, LOTSA times.” Ever had sex? Ever been on a date? Ever been in a Cadillac? Ever driven a car?

“Sure. LOTSA times.”

The corrupt Karchy, newly-nicknamed “Chucky,” falls in with the corrupt and corrupting Billy, and all of a sudden the world is his oyster.

Eszterhas revisits the Bill Cosby-approved “Spanish Fly” aphrodisiac of the era. The kid tries it on Diney, gets her sick and damned if she doesn’t brush that off and remain “friends.” A lot of film critics rolled their eyes at sleazy, sexist garbage like this that turned up in film after film with the Eszterhas name on the credits. A lot of female critics, actresses and others, loathed him for that very reason.

His hero stands up to the bully just once, and we’re treated to the sad spectacle of Rhys Myers and Renfro tangling in the boy’s room. Film buffs will remember that one pugilist-actor killed himself a few years later, and the other tried to kill himself a few years after that.

Bacon is at his oiliest here. He had a nice run of villains in the ’90s, and while this isn’t one of the great ones — Billy is just taking money under the table from record companies and pop star managers, signing talent to one-sided contracts to make them “a star” — Bacon makes sure we smell the excess cologne and hair product.

The seeds of the screenwriter’s destruction were planted long before this attempt at turning “sentimental.” Audiences tired of the irrational characters, over-the-top sexuality, ludicrous turns of phrase in the dialogue. These “characters” could only exist in an Eszterhas world, and that world was changing.

He would’ve been crucified on the Hollywood sign had he stuck around into the #MeToo era. “Sleazy” doesn’t quite cover his films’ reputation. “Rapey” is closer to the mark.

Still, if you know his canon and remember his headline-grabbing rep — the Madonna, Roseanne and Kanye of screenwriting — “Telling Lies in America” kind of explains it all.

Maybe the next time he grabs a headline — which he does by announcing a “comeback” in faith-based films (HAH), or wants to revisit his infamy by reviving “Showgirls” or the talking up the Ovitz feud anew — nobody will fall for it.

Same old Eszterhas. Same line of BS.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sex related situations

Cast: Kevin Bacon, Brad Renfro, Calista Flockhart, Maximilian Schell and Luke Wilson.

Credits: Directed by Guy Ferland, script by Joe Eszterhas. A Shout! Factory release.

Running time: 1:41

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