“The Hoax” fearlessly wades through the slippery psychology of a shameless liar — writer Clifford Irving — who sold a bogus “autobiography” of Howard Hughes to McGraw Hill and came close to pulling off the publishing scam of the century. Lasse Hallstrom’s breezy, fast-paced, somewhat loose-ended account of how he did it offers a surprisingly layered vehicle for a maniacally conniving Richard Gere, backed up by a superb Alfred Molina as his accomplice. Though it marks a much-needed expansion of Gere’s repertoire beyond the romantic lead he has continued to play well into his 50s, this complex loser’s role marks pic as a marketing challenge for Miramax in U.S. release next April.
Overseas distribs will have to face not just the hurdle of selling a tale about the long-forgotten Irving, but also won’t have the comfort of a large-size Hughes myth to draw on. Their only choice will be to present the film on its own irregular merits. On the plus side are a fascinating, stranger-than-fiction story and many tensely comic scenes in a darker second half that breaks into multiple narrative and thematic facets as the film strains to be about not just about a man, but about an era in America, without fully succeeding.
Still, for Hallstrom, this is a move in the right direction after the unhappy trio of “The Shipping News,” “An Unfinished Life” and “Casanova,” all of which represented a sharp drop-off from the critical and box office success of “Chocolat” and “The Cider House Rules.” Here the recipe for combining the director’s European free spirit with American storytelling techniques and rhythms is a happier blend, with the added spice of Nixon-era political corruption and a critique of national greed and self-deception.
William Wheeler’s script, based on Irving’s own tell-all book, which came out after he served a two-year jail sentence for fraud, taps into both Irving’s and Hughes’ colorful lives. There is more than enough plot to go around, and events race by so swiftly the film demands a good amount of concentration to keep abreast.
It’s late 1971, with Vietnam and protest marches dominating the news. But the politically charged times, underscored by newsreels and catchy period music, pass by unnoticed for egocentric, bright-eyed author Irving, about to sell a new novel to McGraw Hill through his icy inhouse publisher Andrea Tate (Hope Davis). When the deal falls through, a crestfallen Irving recklessly blurts out that he is writing “the book of the century,” without a clue as to what it is.
Inspiration attaches itself to his foot — Howard Hughes on a magazine cover — in the makeshift studio of his wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harding), a hippie painter of no great talent but deeply in love with her philandering mate. They have reconciled after he broke off with his mistress, the beautiful and amoral European baroness Nina (a comically dippy Julie Delpy.) Thus begins the theme of personal trust and betrayal, which will be skillfully intertwined with the main Hughes plot.
A third thread arrives in the pudgy form of Irving’s best friend and loyal researcher Dick Suskind (Molina). Almost as a joke, they start to fantasize about convincing Irving’s publishers he’s in Howard’s good graces and has been chosen to co-author the billionaire’s memoirs.
Some of the film’s most enjoyable material revolves around Irving’s chutzpah and daring in persuading an army of suspicious McGraw Hill suits, headed by a deliciously greedy Shelton Fisher (Stanley Tucci at his understated mightiest).Mistrust farcically battles with raw greed as they eye Irving’s forged letters from “Howard,” desperately wanting to believe they’re real but afraid of being taken for a royal ride.
In the end, greed wins out or, as Irving rationalizes it, “a man who says something completely implausible will always be believed.” At every credibility hurdle, he ups the ante, forcing the publishers to pay the unheard-of sum of $1 million to Hughes (i.e., himself) for rights to his story.
Meanwhile, the two lovable swindlers, who are writing up a storm based on illegally procured documents, succumb to panic attacks that have them racing down the McGraw Hill backstairs, followed in their dizzy flight by a vaulting hand-held camera. Though rarely laugh-out-loud comedy, scenes like these roll off the screen like perfectly directed clockwork.
Last part of the film sinisterly suggests Irving was himself the victim of a much larger hoax on the part of the man he was writing about, who used him to force President Nixon to ease antitrust laws and save TWA, which he largely owned. Going even further, it speculates that Nixon’s paranoia over what might be in Irving’s book motivated the Watergate break-ins.
Gere, his hair cut and darkened like the historical Irving, is strongly on key with the bravado and euphoria of the early scenes, creating a likable rogue whose bloated ego has nowhere to go but down. When reality starts hitting the fan and his lies come back to haunt him, he keeps up a bold front while mentally disintegrating.
Molina is a constantly strong comic note as the red-cheeked researcher who nearly has a heart attack carrying out Irving’s wild schemes, yet whose touching faithfulness to his own wife (never seen in the film) contrasts effectively with the wandering of his weak-willed friend. Harden is similarly balanced between a spaciness and her very real feelings of betrayal. They make the most of Wheeler’s amusing, down-to-earth dialogue.
There is much in Hallstrom’s complex direction that recalls a past master of mirrors and deception, Orson Welles. Apart from the obvious parallel between Hughes’ enormous behind-the-scenes power, which rivalled that of the government itself, and that of Charles Foster Kane, another link is Welles’ “documentary” “F For Fake,” where the real Irving appears telling his story.
Tech work creates a strong feeling for the ’70s, with credit going to all hands, but especially to the expressive and varied lensing by Hallstrom’s regular cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, and to Carter Burwell’s delightful soundtrack, which becomes central in establishing time and mood.