Hoax, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In the tradition of Shattered Glass and Catch Me if You Can, The Hoax presents the anatomy of an audacious con artist and illustrates how the sin eventually catches up with the sinner. Due to an uneven tone, various unresolved plot threads, and a sense that a few too many liberties are being taken with the facts of the case, The Hoax falls a notch below those other films. It is neither as entertaining nor as involving, and the main character isn't as complex or sympathetic. For director Lasse Hallström, this represents another near-miss on a resume that is fast becoming crowded with them.

The Hoax fictionalizes the events of one of the most infamous literary scandals of the 20th century. As with many movies "based on true events," this one takes enormous liberties with the facts and should not be mistaken for a legitimate historical record. (Ironic that a movie about fakery should engage in some itself…) The film recounts events from 1971-72 surrounding the false autobiography of Howard Hughes by Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) that was almost published in March 1972. Through a combination of ingenuity, good luck, and brazenness, Irving and his partner, Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina), succeeded in convincing McGraw-Hill editor Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) and president Shelton Fisher (Stanley Tucci) that they had interviewed Hughes in several secret locations and he had agreed to tell them his life's story. In the early '70s, Hughes was a source of endless fascination for the public and his autobiography would be a huge seller. Irving had everyone fooled until Hughes took the unexpected step of emerging from seclusion for a conference call in which he destroyed Irving's credibility. However, even though the book was never officially published, it may have had long-lasting ramifications. The movie suggests (and history does not refute the assertion) that concerns about the content of the book may have fueled the Watergate break-in that eventually brought down President Nixon.

The tone and pacing of The Hoax are uneven. Although the story is not uninteresting, experiencing it via this movie is like going on a car ride across a bumpy road. The Hoax rushes through parts of the story then slows down to focus on minutia. The film doesn't present a good sense of who Clifford Irving is, and his reason for committing the fraud - that he's in dire financial straits and has been screwed over by the publishing industry - doesn't provide the traction necessary to make the story plausible or the character interesting. Shattered Glass faced a similar dilemma and resolved it more effectively.

The most interesting bits of the movie involve the way in which writing about Hughes becomes an obsessive act for Irving. Gradually, even though he has never met the billionaire, he begins to imagine that he understands him. The author starts applying "lessons" learned about how Hughes operates in his own life. (In business dealings, one party is a lion and the other is a donkey. Be the lion.) Eventually, he imagines having contact with one of Hughes' minions and developing a tacit agreement. The film creates ambiguity about how much of this is in Irving's mind and how much of it is the result of a masterful stratagem developed by Hughes.

The Hoax has a fascinating political subtext. Irving discovers a link between Nixon and Hughes that is political dynamite. Nixon is so worried about this becoming public that he does what he can to squash its availability. He also wants to know whether the Democrats have an advance copy and, according to the movie, this is one of the reasons for Watergate. This may be re-writing history to give more importance to Irving's book than it deserves, but the implication presented in The Hoax is that the faux Hughes autobiography led to Nixon's downfall.

Richard Gere is adequate as Irving, but the performance is neither perceptive nor does it represent great theater. In his defense, Gere manages to submerge his personality beneath that of the character, but once this is accomplished, there's not much left. Irving isn't all that interesting. Alfred Molina does a good job portraying a whiny, annoying secondary character. Marcia Gay Harden's accent overshadows her performance. Hope Davis is flat and Julie Delpy's peek-a-boo breast distracts from her acting. The only one who brings real energy to the proceedings is Stanley Tucci, and he's only in a handful of scenes.

Stories about famous hoaxes are often entertaining because it's fascinating to dissect the elements that comprise such grand cons. We can be victims without losing anything and sympathize with the conspirators who are living the American anti-establishment dream of sticking it to the system. The Hoax gives us that, but not much more. Hallström goes in, tells his story, and gets out. There's little depth and some of the intricacies of the tale are pointed out too obviously. (Nixon's aids unambiguously tying Irving's book to Watergate, for example.) As a movie, The Hoax isn't a fraud but it's not the real deal, either.

Hoax, The (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2007-04-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1