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Liar liar

By Ray Pride

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  We all know how the story of "Telling Lies in America" turns out: the teenage Hungarian emigre of Cleveland in 1962 grows up to write "Flashdance" and "Jagged Edge." Karchy Jonas grows up to write "Sliver," "Jade" and "Showgirls." Karchy Jonas -- or as his real-life author calls himself, Joe Eszterhas, under the sway of his new wife, realizes that he can return to his roots and the ideas in one of his earliest screenplays and concoct a sweet, sensitive coming-of-age story. Of all of Eszterhas' many reinventions of himself, from Hungarian kid to daily journalist, from Rolling Stone essayist to the highest-paid screenwriter, this could be perhaps the best. As a vocal advocate of screenwriters' interests, about the only thing Eszterhas needs to live down is director Paul Verhoeven's continuing assertion that "Showgirls" is an "elegant" film.

"Telling Lies in America" isn't a strict autobiography, but Eszterhas says it hews close to things he felt and saw as a kid in a new land -- Cleveland! -- in the early 1960s. Directed by Guy Ferland (a protg of director Joel Schumacher), "Telling Lies" boasts modest virtues of characterization, of place and time, and for Eszterhas, a sweet sense of humor the writer would do well to pursue. Brad Renfro plays the 17-year-old Karchy, a chronic liar who wants to impress everyone around him, particularly at the snobbish private school his father (Maximillian Schell) struggles to send him to. In the months before their naturalization, Karchy fibs his way into becoming an assistant to slick, hard-drinking, heavy-smoking deejay and impresario (Kevin Bacon at his best, center, between Eszterhas and Ferland).

"There had been false starts along the years," the 31-year-old director says, a little under the weather the morning after celebrating the film's debut at the New York Film Festival. "I was working on another coming-of-age story that wasn't coming together, and my producer showed me this script as another example. I looked at it and I said, 'Wow, I really like this, what's happening with this?' Two weeks later I was in Joe's kitchen."

Working on a $4 million budget, Ferland does a fine job of creating a Cleveland he never knew. Tops of buildings with frames full of sky recur. Onion domes of cathedrals are cheek-by-jowl with chromium diners. "We did have to frame out for the period, but I tried to find buildings that not only were old, but that made Cleveland look like a European city, the way a new immigrant would see it. I was very lucky a lot of those buildings still exist in Cleveland. It's a movie about a kid who wants to be American, but we make Cleveland look like Budapest. There's his inner conflict. Possibility exists. He just has to recognize it."

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