It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Cleveland, 1960. "I haven't been Billy Magic since Fort Worth,'' says the lanky, chain-smoking disc jockey. He has the grin of a man who is getting away with something. He is. "Telling Lies in America,'' based on the memories of America's top-paid screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas, is about the kid who helps Billy get away with it, and does a lot of growing up in the process. He gets a break and loses his innocence at the same time.
Karchy Jonas (Brad Renfro) is a student at a Catholic high school attended mostly by rich kids, who call him "white trash.'' His father (Maximilian Schell) is a Hungarian immigrant, who was a professor in the old country but is a janitor in this one. Karchy works for an egg dealer in the local produce market, and has a crush on a girl who tells him she'll date him, but only if he's picked for Billy Magic's "High School Hall of Fame.'' Hall of Famers are supposed to be nominated by their classmates, but Karchy forges the signatures, sends them in, and wins. What he doesn't know is that Billy Magic is looking for a cheater. "You lie good, kid,'' he tells him, but even after he gives Karchy a $100-a-week job, the kid won't admit he was lying. That's good. It's the time of the payola scandals, and Billy needs an underage bag man who can't be forced to testify.
Eszterhas, who has made a fortune with screenplays like "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls," has had this story in the works for 15 years. Himself a Hungarian immigrant who came to Cleveland as a child, he remembers what success looked like from the outside. To Karchy, Billy Magic is a star. And the kid soon centers his life on the radio station, letting his grades slip because school is no longer where he expects to find his future.
Kevin Bacon's work as the disk jockey is one of his best performances. He never pushes it too far: His style is laid-back cool, rather than frantic. His lazy announcer's drawl suggests a cynicism developed during a career on too many stations under too many names. When the kid tells him he's got it made, Billy explains about his ex-wives, his child support payments, and the fact that his red Cadillac convertible is leased. He's one jump ahead of his next market.
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