Saturday, August 11, 2007

Review - The Hoax

The story of Howard Hughes is a compellingly strange one in itself, but it also managed to spin off a couple weird little stories which are just as intriguing. Take Clifford Irving, for example. It was he who told the world that he was working on the most important book of the 20th century in the early 1970's, an authorised biography of the reclusive Hughes which he alone had been asked to write. Naturally an exclusive such as this was big business, and Irving received a $100,000 advance for his trouble with another $400,000 cheque being written up for Hughes (which Irving accepted on his behalf). There was just one problem with this exciting scoop - none of it was true. Irving had never had any contact with Hughes, his book was simply the product of painstaking research, clever forgery, and an unshakable confidence in his own lies.

This is a pretty good story, and it's a story with the potential to be a pretty good film. Orson Welles thought so, using the tale as part of his 1974 semi-documentary
F for Fake, but Irving's hoax hasn't received a proper cinematic rendition until now. Perhaps fittingly, The Hoax has taken a loose approach when dealing with the hard facts at the centre of this story, and the filmmakers have been quite open about the fact that many scenes depicted herein are a complete fabrication. It's easy to quibble when such liberties are taken, but it's equally easy to forgive those liberties if the result is a fun movie, and The Hoax is a lot of fun.

In Lasse Hallström's funny and sharp picture, Irving is played by Richard Gere who is a perfect fit for the role. I've always found Gere a more engaging, interesting actor when he has stepped away from the standard Hollywood leading man role to embrace a slightly shiftier persona. It's something the actor has done all-too-rarely in his career (his best role before this one was still 1990's
Internal Affairs) but he's on grand form here. The film opens with one of many invented sequences, the extensive preparation of the McGraw-Hill building for a visit from the elusive Mr Hughes himself. The carpets are removed, the windows are blacked out and every surface is rigorously cleaned as Irving stands on the roof assuring everyone that, yes, his interviewee will show.

The Hoax then jumps back a few months to show us how these events came to pass. According to the film Irving's decision to go down this route was an act of desperation. His novel had been turned down by McGraw-Hill, and as the financially stretched writer scrambled for something to hook their interest he came up with the bright idea of a Hughes biography. He makes it sound plausible enough - claiming the eccentric billionaire contacted him after reading one of his books, and told him that he would communicate with him and him alone - and in any case, the publishers are too busy dealing with the dollar signs dancing in their eyes to pick any holes in the story.

It was a brilliant ruse, and Irving came so close to pulling it off. As played by Gere and as written by William Wheeler we are encouraged to view the con-man as a heroic, almost Quixotic figure. As the stakes get bigger and he paints himself into increasingly tight corners, Irving has to think on his feet to keep the story rolling on, and he comes up with such gems it's hard not to cheer. Hallström stages a bravura sequence halfway through the picture when Irving and his panic-stricken friend Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina) are called to the Time Life offices to have their claims authenticated. Nervous and sweating profusely, Dick inexplicably blurts out the line "he gave me a prune!", and without missing a beat Irving manages to spin a tall tale - mixing the fact he has researched with large dollops of fiction - about Hughes and that prune, a tale which has the Time Life executives in the palm of his hand.

Gere is in his element here; his sly and charming display sucking us into Clifford's elaborate fantasies. This is probably the best he has ever been, but he's fortunate to have so many strong actors around him to play off - Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Julie Delpy and Stanley Tucci are all enjoyable - and he almost sees the whole picture stolen by Alfred Molina's Dick Susskind. Molina brings a sharp comic momentum to his best scenes, like the one in which he helps Clifford steal documents from a government building, or another in which he tries to take Noah Dietrich's memoirs from under his nose (here Dietrich is played by Eli Wallach, raising the pleasing notion of Wallach as the elder John C Reilly, who played the role in
The Aviator). The Hoax has the light air of a caper movie in these sequences, with its central pairing desperately scrambling to stay ahead of the truth, but Molina also manages to successfully express the strain this web of lies has placed him under and he brings a moving vulnerability to his later scenes.

But it's Clifford's own breakdown which causes problems in
The Hoax's final third. When Clifford starts having imaginary encounters with some shady government officials (after uncovering information linking Hughes to Nixon), this lively and neatly-constructed film starts to falter, and Gere's limitations as an actor become a little more evident he is asked to move into more demanding territory. Then, when Clifford's hoax is discovered with twenty minutes to go, the film just about deflates completely, and it rather crawls to a conclusion which is hardly befitting of the fun to be had in its opening two-thirds.

The Hoax has built up enough goodwill by this time to overcome the draggy climax though, and it's the film's most enjoyable elements which linger after the credits have rolled. This is Hallström's best film in years, the cast is a constant pleasure, and the story of Clifford Irving's near-hoodwinking of the world remains fascinating enough to pull the film through its rough patches. Does it matter that the filmmakers have altered or invented large chunks of that story for this cinematic version? Maybe, but it didn't bother me much, and perhaps the very nature of the story here allows for such a free hand, with the film mirroring Clifford's own loose approach to the truth. Bearing that in mind, it might be perfectly appropriate that The Hoax is never as much fun when reality intrudes on Irving's fantastical tale.