Hoax, The

Rome Film Festival (World Premiere)–Based on the memoirs of Clifford Irving, The Hoax is the fact-inspired tale of a pathological liar who fakes an authorized biography of Howard Hughes, only to realize he was part of a manipulative scheme by the shrewd billionaire.

The movie received its world premiere out of competition at the inaugural edition of the RomaCinemaFest. It will be released theatrically in Italy and other European countries later this fall, months ahead of the Miramax US release, which was pushed back to April 2007.

As entertaining and quasi-poignant as The Hoax is, the film is hampered by several problems. Its directed by the Swedish-born Lasse Hallstrom whos not particularly well-versed in American politics and mores, in a speedy but ultimately superficial way. The lead is played by Richard Gere, who displays his customary charisma in the films first part, but finally renders a shallow performance that lacks shading and nuance in the second, more crucial half.

The Hoax would have been perfect material for the young Sidney Lumet, not only because its set in the 1970s, the decade in which Lumet made his masterpieces (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network), but also because its a uniquely American story, full of ironies and marked by darker emotional and political subtexts that are only briefly implied by Hallstrom.

Irving's memoir was published after he served a two-year jail sentence for fraud. William Wheeler's script, which is loosely based on the book, tries to chronicle the colorful lives of both Irving and Hughes. However, as written and directed, the film tries to do too much, to be at once the story of a maniacal con artist and the story of a whole era of corruption and political manipulation. Indee, the movie never delves deeply enough into the psychology of a shameless liar, who sold a bogus “autobiography” of Hughes to McGraw Hill and came close to pulling off one of the centurys biggest scams.

The story begins in late 1971, with the Vietnam War in full swing and anti-War demonstrations dominating the news. However, the politically charged times, underscored by newsreels and period music, go unnoticed by the selfish author Irving, about to sell a new novel to McGraw Hill through his ambitious publisher Andrea Tate (a tight-lipped Hope Davis).

Initially, Irving is a writer obsessed with becoming rich and famous. When the deal falls through, Irving recklessly exclaims that he is writing “the book of the century,” though hes clueless as to its specific subject. Desperate to find the grand idea to accomplish his goals, he decides to fabricate an insider's biography of the legendary recluse Howard Hughes. We are led to believe that Irving gets inspiration from seeing Hughes on the cover of Life magazine.

Meanhwile, we get to know his wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harding, made out to look grotesque with a fake, long blond wig), a hippie painter of no particular talent. She's still deeply in love with her philandering mate. The couple has reconciled after Irving has presumbaly broken off with his mistress, the beautiful and amoral European baroness Nina Van Pallandt (Julie Delpy, miscast as femme fatale.)

As the 1975 political satire Shampoo and the current Bobby (both of which are set in 1968), The Hoax aspires to intertwine the theme of personal trust and betrayal with that of national trust and betrayal during the early 1970s, specifically around the time of the Watergate scandal.

What initially seems like an impossible task becomes easier, when Irving steals a secretive manuscript from Noah Dietrich (Eli Wallach), an old associate of Hughes, who now lives in Palm Springs. The act of theft is the most fraudulent (and incredible) scene of the yarn.

With his co-writer David Suskind (Alfred Molina), Irving talks up the story into a $1 million book deal. Hughes finds out about the book, and instead of stopping it, he lets it go ahead on the strange condition that it include some dirt about Richard Nixon accepting bribe from Hughes.

The early scenes recall another con-artist tale, Spielbergs “Catch Me If You Can,” but as Hallstroms film advances, it takes on bigger issues, such as the whole paranoid-conspiracy culture of the 1970s.

Hallstrom tries to keeps the attitudes contemporary, but the film feels like a period piece. Factual newsreel footage of events and TV broadcasts are used, and theres one sequence in which the reclusive Hughes finally goes on record to deny any knowledge of Irving; its considered to be his last public appearance.

Although “The Hoax” makes no direct comparisons to today's state of affairs, it fits into the zeitgeist. However, the story of government cover-ups, businessmen manipulating political influence in the White House, and a mood of deceit and deception, could have made it into a more relevant film.

As is, The Hoax is all plot, twists and turns, with little attention to characterization, motivation, or psychology. Hallstrom opts for a breezy account that centers on how Irving did it. As such, its a stranger-than-fiction fable, replete with both tension and comic relief. The events race by swiftly, but they have no cumulative emotional impact.

Hallstrom, whose last American movies (“The Shipping News,” “An Unfinished Life, “Chocolat”) have been artistically disappointing and not commercial either, must have needed a change of pace. The last satisfying Hallstrom picture was “Cider House Rules,” in 1999. Theres tension here between the director's naturally loose, humanistic European mode and hardcore American storytelling and ideology, which the film calls for (hence the earlier Sidney Lumet suggestion).

The films best scenes involve Irvings relationship with his best friend and loyal researcher David Suskind. As a joke, the couple start to fantasize about convincing Irving's publishers he's in Howard's good graces and has been chosen to co-author the billionaire's memoirs.

For a while, we are intrigued by Irving's daring in persuading suspicious McGraw Hill executives, headed by greedy Shelton Fisher (Stanley Tucci). The film's portrayal of the publishing world may be realistic but its utterly cynical. Torn between greed as they vye for Irving's forged letters from “Howard,” desperately wanting to believe they're real, and mistrust and fear of being taken for a ride, they succumb to greed, the worst vice of capitalism, well-aware that if McGraw Hill will not take the book, another competitor would.

At every turn, irving ups the ante, forcing the foolish publishers to pay the unheard-of sum of $1 million for rights to his story. The journey is not without obstacles. The swindlers, who are writing up a storm based on illegally procured documents, succumb to panic attacks and hysterical races up and down the backstairs; there are even two preposterously dizzy flights from the offices.

The films last reel is problematic, because we are asked to take a major leap of faith. The yarn goes as far as to suggest that Irving was himself the victim of a larger, more frightening hoax. Hughes used him to force President Nixon to ease antitrust laws and save TWA, which he largely owned. Going further–and rather incredibly–the picture speculates that Nixon's paranoia over what might be in Irving's book led to the Watergate break-in in June 1972 (which resulted in Nixons resignation two years later).

Looking creepy, Richard Gere, his hair cut and darkened, is all bravado in the early scenes, creating a likable rogue with bloated ego. Playing his most complex role in years, this is a significant stretch for Gere, but it also shows his limitations as an actor. Initially, Gere's portrayal of the dishonest Irving is engaging and energetic, channeling his customary screen charisma into playing a natural-born liar, spinning a web of deceit that ultimately traps himself.

But Gere is only semi-successful in portraying a classic anti-hero, a uniquely American monster for whom we have ambivalent feelings, partly wanting him to succeed and partly wanting him to get caught and punished. Its a role that the young Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro could have done much better if the movie were made in the 1970s or 1980s.

Molina, as Irvings worried researcher and co-writer, registers more strongly. Serving as the films moral conscience, Suskind is more (but not completely) honest than Irving. Molina also benefits from having a sharply written part, one that contains most of the funny and witty lines.

Molina is a strong comic foil as the researcher who nearly has a heart attack carrying out Irving's wild schemes. But even here the writing is flawed. Hes meant to be faithful to his own wife, who we never see, but let himself be dragged into a brothel with Irving. In the eneg, rather inexplicably and cynically, he emerges as a winnerdespite himself.

The films two women fare less effectively. Rendering a disappointing intense and draggy performance, Marcia Gay Harden goes from a hippies cheerful spaciness to fits of jealousy and anger over her hubbys betrayal. In a climactic marital confrontation, she's forced to use a Swiss accent–she's back from Switzerland, where she flew to deposit the $1 million check. As noted before, Julie Delpie is miscast as the seductress; fortunately, she has only two or three scenes.

A strong feeling for the 1970s is evoked through the varied lensing by Hallstrom's regular cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, who uses diffuse lighting, as was the norm of films from that era. The corporate look, specifically the office interiors, recall such period conspiracy pictures as “All the President's Men.” Coming to think about it, Allan Pakula, who directed that 1976 picture, would also have been a better choice than Hallstrom for The Hoax.

End note

Who will see the film and who will enjoy it At present, Irving is long-forgotten, and the public may be tired of seeing films and TV shows about the mythic Howard Hughes, who was recently celebrated in Scorseses Oscar-winning The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes.

You may want to rent Orson Welles's documentary” “F For Fake,” in which the real-life Clifford Irving tells his story in his own words.

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