All the elements in place a first-rate script about one of the biggest literary scams in U.S. history, a top-notch cast, an Oscar-nominated director and yet Lasse Hallstrom's The Hoax comes up short. Whether it's the ill-fit of Hallstrom's breezy, humanist style or Richard Gere's limitations, this intertwined fact-inspired tale of personal and political betrayal never achieves the depth, complexity and drama screenwriter Bill Wheeler's script calls for.
Back in 1971, Clifford Irving (Gere), a journalist and struggling novelist desperate to jump-start his career, convinced publishing giant McGraw-Hill he'd been recruited to pen the autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Everyone involved became convinced it'd be "the story of the century." The only problem was Hughes had nothing to do with it.
Assisted by his close friend, Dick Susskind (Albert Molina), Irving spins an elaborate and pathological web of lies, as he gathers information to write the book. Stealing federal documents, forging letters, exploiting Hughes' former confidants and manipulating his skeptical publishers' greed to subsidize his efforts, the would-be biographer comes damn close to pulling the thing off. Irving immerses himself into Hughes' life so completely that no one calls his bluff; but his scheme hinges on the mogul's paranoia and seclusion and history tells us that was a bad bet. As Irving's lies take on a life of their own and begin to collapse, he discovers that he too has been conned; stage-managed by Hughes in a political power play that reaches the Nixon White House.
Hallstrom's light, punchy style serves the movie's first half best, as Irving juggles deceptions and bullies Susskind into helping him. With each success, the writer grows intoxicated with his power to deceive and his machinations grow bolder. The Hoax doesn't have the fidgety energy that, say, a director like Steven Soderbergh would bring, but Hallstrom finds the right balance of tension and wit to keep us engaged.
Unfortunately, he's less adept at navigating the clever twists of the film's second half. Never a great storyteller, Hallstrom's superficial approach weakens the plot's more sophisticated turns and undermines Wheeler's pointed political subtext. Because The Hoax focuses more on how Irving did it than why, this fascinating story is robbed of complexity, motivation and psychology. In the end, as Irving's lies are exposed, there's an inevitability to the story's conclusion that leaves us unmoved. (Audiences will probably leave the theater empathizing with the poor dupes at McGraw-Hill.)
Irving is a distinctly American anti-hero and neither Gere nor Hallstrom understands what makes him tick. Gere's verve in the early scenes effectively paints Irving as a likable if egotistical scoundrel, but, as his schemes unravel, the performance lacks the nuance and complexity to define the character.
As Susskind, Molina is good comic foil to Gere's conniving. The women, on the other hand, are mostly unconvincing. Marcia Gaye Harden struggles with a Swiss accent as Irving's long-suffering artist wife and Julie Delpy is miscast as his self-obsessed mistress. Only Hope Davis shines as the sexy, self-serving McGraw-Hill editor Andrea Tate.
While the film entertains, Gere and Hallstrom lack the artistry to convey how the personal and political tragically mirror image one another. Considering today's governmental cover-ups, journalistic frauds and political deceptions, The Hoax should've been more relevant.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.