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You're So Vain

The Joe Eszterhas who wrote the screenplay for Telling Lies in America is a kinder, gentler soul than the hard-nosed hipster who got a couple million bucks for turning Sharon Stone into the lethal temptress of Basic Instinct or conceived that masterpiece of the cinematic arts, Showgirls. This new Joe Eszterhas is a fountain of good will, a gusher of sweet sentiment.

That's because he's writing about his own childhood in Cleveland, more or less, and if anything can reduce a tough guy to a pile of mush, it's looking back on his days as an outcast teenager tormented by bullies in the school cafeteria, on the follies of adolescent sexual folklore, or on the dream of his hardworking immigrant father to assimilate.

That's the familiar kind of coming-of-age story Eszterhas conjures up here. Telling Lies has a director (Guy Ferland, late of The Babysitter) and a pair of stars (Brad Renfro, from Sleepers, and Kevin Bacon, from everywhere), but it's the screenwriter's baby from start to finish--a tale of naivete, desire, disillusionment and pluck that its creator calls "figuratively autobiographical" and which represents one of the most flagrant acts of self-indulgence in recent memory. Eszterhas wrote the first version of the script back in the mid-Eighties, about the time he was doing Jagged Edge and Flashdance. At the urging of his wife, Naomi, who's credited here as an executive producer, he recently dusted it off and polished it up. He'd have done better to leave it in a drawer.

Even in Cleveland, folks have heard of Faust's deal with Mephistopheles (remember Damn Yankees?) But that doesn't stop Eszterhas from recycling it for the umpteenth time. Now the devil in disguise, circa 1961, is a crooked rock-and-roll disc jockey (Bacon) who calls himself Billy Magic. Run out of half a dozen markets, Billy's landed this time at Cleveland's WHK, where he's still laying his synthetic charm on the chicks, driving (what else?) a red Cadillac convertible and using carefully selected teenage proteges as gofers and bag men to collect payola from the record companies. Telling Lies "withholds" this shocking development from the audience for 45 minutes, but that's bogus: From reel one we know exactly what this bush-league Alan Freed's up to, even if the movie's innocent hero doesn't.

That would be seventeen-year-old Karchy Jonas (Renfro), a thinly veiled version of Eszterhas himself. A motherless Hungarian immigrant boy whose beleaguered father (Maximilian Schell) slaves in a factory, Karchy is an insecure misfit with a lingering accent who's enthralled by "Hand Jive" and "The Magic Touch" and yearns desperately to be cool. That means winning the girl of his dreams (Calista Flockhart), scoring his own Caddy, defying stern Father Norton (Paul Dooley) and actually becoming his mentor and idol, Billy Magic.

Papa, of course, is an Old World type straight out of Central Casting. He wants Karchy to memorize the Pledge of Allegiance, finish his bowl of goulash and go to college.

If we don't already feel a good case of cliche overload coming on, consider this: One of Karchy's two friends at parochial school is a black kid named Amos Smith (Damen Fletcher), who just happens to be the second coming of Sam Cooke. Leave it to Billy Magic to exploit him, too, in the dawn of the civil rights era. About the only thing missing, corruption-wise, is Billy Magic's future role in the Kennedy assassination.

Through Billy's efforts, Karchy gets laid, gets drunk and gets supplied with $20 bills. The kid loves it. But when it comes down to the battle for his very soul between the cynical sharpie ("It don't matter how you get it, kid--as long as you get it") and dear old dad ("I vahnt to become American citizen!"), Karchy suddenly knows exactly what to do. Write it large: The boy's a moral force in the world.

Talk about a vanity project. Even after we make allowances for poetic license, Eszterhas's unbounded admiration for his autobiographical hero, a naive and vulnerable teen who summons up all kinds of goodness and courage in the face of temptation, is a valentine to the self that is worthy of the great contemporary egotists--Barbra Streisand, Donald Trump or Dennis Rodman. This is not the first moviemaker or novelist to improve upon the details of his youth in the guise of fiction. But Eszterhas's posture through the years--the hormonal brute who backed the Hollywood moguls down with tough Art--suddenly looks pretty lame. By the time he gets to the obligatory citizenship oath, father and son standing together before a pair of American flags, we've figured out he's an emotional scammer no less talented than Billy himself.

Want to meet the real Joe Eszterhas? Don't even lowball it with Showgirls. Rent Jade or F.I.S.T. or Betrayed. Thirty minutes of watching that stuff and you'll know all you need to.

Telling Lies in America.
Screenplay by Joe Eszterhas. Directed by Guy Ferland. With Kevin Bacon, Brad Renfro, Maximilian Schell, Calista Flockhart and Damen Fletcher.

 
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