Telling Lies in America
1997, PG-13, 101 min. Directed by Guy Ferland. Starring Kevin Bacon, Brad Renfro, Maximilian Schell, Calista Flockhart.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Nov. 7, 1997
The arrival of this subtle, endearing, emotionally nuanced film is a blessing for movie fans but a loss for the American slang lexicon. No longer can we say, for example, “I can't stand to be in the same room with that guy; he's just so Joe Eszterhas” and be absolutely sure we've used an exact synonym for “loathsome, maggot-brained perv.” A display of disciplined, humane talent from Mr. Jade himself? The pud-stroking hack responsible for Showgirls, Sliver, and Basic Instinct? Believe it. With help from talented young director Ferland and a sublime performance from Kevin Bacon, Eszterhas has created a gentle and affecting ode to universal growing-up conflicts within a beautifully rendered evocation of a specific time and place. Bacon stars as Billy Magic, a well-traveled disc jockey who in 1960 takes over the featured rock & roll show at a station located in the less than prestigious Cleveland market. Leering, chain-smoking Billy is effortlessly cool and his playlist is a roots rock aficionado's wet dream, but something about his manner suggests a man with as much guile and raw appetite as soul. Shortly after rolling into town in his red Caddy convertible, he hires a shy young immigrant kid named Karchy Jonas (Renfro) as his assistant. Karchy, an anonymous outsider at his rich-kid school, finds the job much to his liking with its lavish pay, short hours, and opportunities to bask in Magic's aura of mega-coolness. There's a hitch, though: It turns out Karchy's main function is to serve as a bagman for payola flowing between record promoters and his boss. It's wrong, of course, but Karchy can't help wondering whether the good results, including the ability to help his poor, rigorously honest father (Schell), don't outweigh the negatives of the pissant offense. And so he faces one of youth's central dilemmas: how seriously to take the truth-as-ultimate-good homilies laid down by one's elders, especially in the face of massive evidence suggesting that lies are the grease that keep civilization's gears turning? Bacon, with his oily hair, gaunt face, and crooked smile that identifies him as one of the lucky few who gets life's joke, is an overwhelming force calling Karchy to cross over to The Gray Side. Influences on the other side are his Old World, old-school dad and Diney (Flockhart, from the Ally McBeal TV show), a sympathetic older girl who recognizes the delicate cusp he's riding. And that's your story. No breasts, no blood, no Nazi beasts. Just consistently fine acting, adroit and assured directing and, yes, pitch-perfect writing by an artist with much to prove and the real (if underused) talent to do it. Rusty says check it out.