Directed by: Lasse Hallström
Starring: Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Stanley Tucci, Julie Delpy
With The Hoax, Lasse Hallström is getting the kind of reviews he hasn’t seen since Chocolat (2000), and deservedly so (even if I never understood why his 2005 film Casanova wasn’t better received). In fact, I suspect that time will prove The Hoax to be an even better film than it might at first seem. The big question of the moment is whether or not Miramax is going to kill the film with one of those tiered-release attempts—the kind that did no favors for last year’s Dreamgirls or Miss Potter. (The idea of word-of-mouth and slowly built interest quickly reaches a saturation point with a society hooked on instant gratification.)
It would be a great pity for The Hoax to die such a death, especially since it’s a time when there’s an overload of mediocrity and downright rubbish in every multiplex on Earth. These are grim moviegoing times, and a solid film with a strong cast in a story that’s actually about something is more than usually welcome. Don’t get the idea, however, that The Hoax is a dull, drab movie that’s good for you. It certainly has its points to make, but the film itself is a playfully comedic affair that is occasionally something of a hoax in its own right.
The film is based on Clifford Irving’s more or less confessional novel, The Hoax, that details the story behind Irving’s notorious fake “autobiography” of Howard Hughes and his hoodwinking of publishers McGraw-Hill into buying his increasingly outrageous claims about his relationship with Hughes, especially concerning Hughes’ peculiar demands about the publishing arrangements. Having already written a book about a major hoaxter, art-forger Elmyr de Hory, and being backed into a wall by his own faltering literary career, why not outclass de Hory by pulling off a really superb fakery? After all, Irving reasoned, it was unlikely that the hermit Hughes would challenge his veracity publicly, and with this in mind, he honestly appears to have believed he might get away with it.
As hoaxes go, it’s one of the biggest, brightest and most amusing. After all, is anyone going to feel all that much sympathy for a huge publisher—and Life magazine—being taken for a ride, or for a certifiably weird billionaire industrialist being co-opted by a sharp con man? It’s easy to feel admiration for Irving’s nearly insane humbuggery, and hard to feel outrage over it, especially in today’s world of such comparative amateur-night-in-Dixie jiggery-pokery as that practiced by James Frey and Stephen Glass.
Irving’s amazing con had already formed part of the basis for Orson Welles’ brilliant essay film F for Fake (1974), and Welles’ film seems to have influenced the approach taken here by Hallström and screenwriter William Wheeler (whose only previous credit is an obscure 2000 film, The Prime Gig, which mostly played film festivals before going to DVD). Just as with Welles’ film, The Hoax is part truth, part bluster and part personal statement. In Welles’ case, the personal statement was a defense of the artist as con man (or vice versa). In the case of The Hoax, it’s more about the tendency of people to believe something because they want to believe it.
The Hoax is also about how it’s possible to come to believe your own lies if you live them long enough. In this last regard, aspects of The Hoax ultimately cross a line that takes it all the way into the realm of George Clooney’s underrated Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) or possibly Ron Howard’s overrated A Beautiful Mind (2001). It’s more this deepening of what lies beneath Irving’s con job that gives The Hoax its power, rather than the film’s (sort of supportable) assertions that tie the fake autobiography to Nixon’s paranoia and the Watergate break-in that toppled his presidency.
Ever so slowly Irving comes to believe in some kind of twisted reality underlying his own con. He may never completely believe that he is actually in contact with Hughes, but he does take on Hughes’ personality in a series of self-conducted “interviews,” and comes to believe that he’s on the reclusive billionaire’s wavelength and has his tacit blessing. Since he doesn’t actually have access to his subject, Irving virtually becomes Hughes, and then comes to believe that he’s a pawn in a game bigger than any he ever imagined. All of this is carefully, but unobtrusively, set up, as is the film’s evocation of the restless era (meant to mirror our own) in which it takes place.
There’s scarcely a false note in the film, and the performances from Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Julie Delpy and Stanley Tucci are on par with the film. Molina steals the show (when does he not?) as Irving’s not entirely willing coconspirator, Dick Suskind, but everyone shines. Even Delpy finds some meat in the fairly minor role of Irving’s mistress Nina van Pallandt, a minor actress and singer (probably best known to the general public at the time of the events for singing the grimly syrupy “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?” on the soundtrack of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)). Nina took the opportunity to draw attention to herself by denouncing her lover, thereby ensuring her a solid 15 minutes of fame. All in all, The Hoax is a splendidly satisfying film, funny and pointed, and with a lot more truth in its fantastications of a true story than one might at first believe. Rated R for language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke