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Wednesday, November 12, 1997

Telling Lies in America

Posted By on Wed, Nov 12, 1997 at 12:00 AM

In the loosely autobiographical Telling Lies in America, highly paid Hollywood screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Jade, Basic Instinct, Showgirls) shows he can do more than churn out the violence and sex-saturated screenplays that have recently been his stock-in-trade.

By turns poignant and humorous, this thoughtful coming-of-age story is set in an early-1960s working-class neighborhood in Cleveland where teenager Karchy Jonas (Brad Renfro), a Hungarian immigrant, is struggling to negotiate his way to manhood.

Karchy is given to telling a series of petty, self-aggrandizing lies in order to bolster his lagging self-image, and one of his lying stunts lands him in the "high school hall of fame" of local DJ Billy Magic (Kevin Bacon), which in turn leads to a well-paying job as Billy's sidekick.

To Karchy, Billy seems to have it all -- good looks, a flashy job associated with rock 'n' roll, an easy way with women and a fabulous 1959 red Cadillac convertible. Karchy comes to idolize Billy and seeks to emulate him, unable to see that his beloved mentor is telling a few lies of his own.

Karchy is adequately portrayed by Renfro, though at times his performance seems bland and lacking in depth and subtlety. Solid supporting performances are delivered by Maximilian Schell as Karchy's solemn, wise, old-world father; by Calista Flockhart as the unavailable older woman Karchy learns to love, and Paul Dooley as the priest with whom Karchy frequently locks horns.

But this picture belongs to Kevin Bacon, who shines as Billy Magic. Seedy, vulgar yet charismatic, Bacon's Billy plays like a youthful Dick Clark gone bad, possessing a slick polished exterior with the soul of a two-bit hustler. Speaking of sex, although he could be referring to any of the trappings of his life, Billy sums up his ethos when he tells Karchy, "It doesn't matter how you get it, as long as you get it."

In addition to depicting a vintage middle-America deeply riven by class and race, this film cheekily manages to avoid a predictable condemnation of lying, while sensitively exploring the vulnerability, confusion and macho posturing of a young man poised on the threshold of adulthood.

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