© 2007 Ray Wong
Based on true events, The Hoax chronicles one of the biggest literary frauds in American history, told from eyes of the perpetuator, Clifford Irving, himself.
The year is 1971. Clifford Irving (Gere) is a nonfiction writer who sees his career going downhill after his publisher, McGraw-Hill, decides to pass on his next book. Struggling to find the next big thing, he stumbles upon an idea that would make him rich and famous: a Howard Hughes biography. No one has seen or heard from the eccentric billionaire in years, and an authorized biography would become an instant sensation. Clifford pitches the idea to his editor Andrea Tate (Davis), who later gladly announces that McGraw-Hill would pay him almost half a million dollars for the exclusive right if he can actually deliver the goods.
The problem is, Clifford Irving has never met or spoken with Howard Hughes. And he has no intention of getting Hughes's approval or cooperation. Helped by his wife Edith (Harden) and his best friend Dick Susskind (Molina), they concocted a deliberate scheme to con the publisher. He forges Hughes's handwriting and presents McGraw-Hill with letters and taped recordings to convince them of his authenticity. Dick is himself an aspiring children's book writer, and a very good researcher. Through their research, Clifford and Dick uncover all kinds of information and insider secrets on Hughes, making their book as authentic as can be.
However, the lack of actual face time with Hughes makes the publisher extremely nervous and suspicious. Even though handwriting experts have authenticated the letters, they want physical proofs, and Clifford's scheme starts to unravel. Desperate, he asks for a million dollars and sinks deeper and deeper into his deceptions. He has passed a point of no return.
Richard Gere (Shall We Dance) really impresses as the con artist. Gere is like fine wine -- his performances get better with his age. As Clifford Irving, Gere displays his usual charm with an underlying ruthlessness and crassness that make us at once despise and root for him. Gere also tones down his movie-star good looks and immerses himself into the character. Alfred Molina (The Da Vinci Code) is wonderful as well. He can play a larger-than-life villain just as well as a down-to-Earth con man. Here, as the befuddled writer who gets sucked into such a partnership, he almost steals every scene, which is very impressive considering how solid Gere is.
The supporting cast is top-notch. Hope Davis (Infamous) is delightful as Irving's trusting editor. She turns in a nuanced, heart-felt performance and we feel very bad for her character. Marcia Gay Harden (American Dreamz) plays Clifford's devoted but mistreated wife beautifully; she definitely gets our sympathy votes. Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada) plays his usual brash corporate executive with gusto, and Julie Deply (Broken Flowers), as Irving's mistress, adds certain pathos to his deceptive tale.
Based on Irving's own novel (I'm surprised he still had a career, albeit writing fiction), the screenplay, written by William Wheeler (The Prime Gig), is fast-paced and layered, with multiple subplots weaved into the main story. The intriguing plot reminds us of both Martian Scorsese's The Aviator and Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can. Hughes's life and eccentricity were legendary, and it's also fascinating to see a real-life con unfold.
Unfortunately, some of the plot elements are rather implausible, making us wonder how much Irving himself has embellished and exaggerated. For example, he must have been really good to pass the tests of not one, but two handwriting experts, and to pull off stunts after stunts and still get away with them. After a while, it all becomes sort of a caricature, and the story loses some credibility even when the suspense is palpable.
However, director Hallström (Cassanova) keeps the pace fast and the tension taut. His deft skills and fluid storytelling help the film sustain its energy and intrigues. The solid cast adds tremendous value to the production. Echoing recent literary frauds such as the James Frey-Oprah debacle, the story has an odd relevance even though it happened more than thirty years ago. One wonders: How far would we go to achieve fame and fortune? With such strong themes and an above-average production, Hallström's film is anything but a hoax.
Stars: Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Stanley Tucci, Julie Delpy, Eli Wallach, John Carter, Christopher Evan Welch
Director: Lasse Hallström
Writers: William Wheeler (based on Clifford Irving's autobiographical novel)
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexuality
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.6 out of 10