There is something strangely alluring about liars, cheats and sneaks. Perhaps it’s that they appeal to our dark side, inviting us to root for them even as they deceive those closest to them and duck beneath the law. There have been a few successful portraits of dishonest men in recent years, including Stephen Glass in Shattered Glass and Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can, and here’s a new one to add to the why-do-I-like-this-guy list: Clifford Irving in The Hoax.
Fans of Richard Gere will be pleased to know that the often silver-coifed actor has never been better than he is here. As the story’s central con man, he is a mix of a used cars salesman and that suave, charming guy at the bar that you’re hoping will approach you. The Hoax is the story of how Clifford Irving, a down-on-his-luck but talented writer, came up with the brilliant idea of writing an autobiography about reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes in the early 1970s. The fact that he'd never spoken a word to the playboy tycoon was a moot point. He had a book to write.
The Hoax definitely falls under the “stranger than fiction” category, and while a few of the story’s events are fabricated (a scene involving a helicopter fake-out, a famous ball that Irving never attended) much of it really happened, to an alarming degree. We’re talking fake handwritten memos from Hughes, phony interviews that deadpan his voice, theft of private government files, mail fraud, and a check-cashing scheme involving Irving’s Swiss painter wife (Marcia Gay Harden). Not to mention a then record-breaking $1 million advance by publishing house McGraw-Hill, run by Shelton Fisher (Stanley Tucci).
Irving concocts this wild, elaborate lie—“the more outrageous I sound, the more convincing I am”—and believes that he can get away with it because of Hughes’ decade-long reluctance to speak in public, paired with his history of off-the-wall mental illness. His right-hand accomplice (think Kato) is researcher/long-time pal Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina); their friendship, albeit a dysfunctional one, is the core of the story, and their scenes together are among the best in a movie full of high points.
While Irving can lie more easily than tell the truth, Susskind is as bad a liar as they come, profusely sweating and excusing himself when asked pressing questions about the project. His anxiety-ridden episodes are downright hilarious and Molina further proves his genius as a scene stealer. Hope Davis and Julie Delpy are also memorable as a pushy, pearl-wearing editor and a mistress with a mission, respectively.
The Hoax is arguably Swedish director Lasse Hallström’s most enjoyable film since 2000’s Chocolat and his most risky effort since 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. The great thing about The Hoax is that William Wheeler's script is never quite what you think it will be, and it delves surprisingly deep for something of this silly nature.
Along with its frequent laughs, a stylish ‘70s look and a playful soundtrack, there are suspenseful, political overtones (it’s set during the paranoid times of Nixon and Vietnam, after all) and a sense of madness that hangs over The Hoax. In the end it’s as wildly erratic as one of Irving’s fibs--and, likewise, just as mesmerizing to watch unfold.