Writer Clifford Irving (Richard Gere, at his most charismatic) is dealing with a heaping load of bad luck that will soon spiral relentlessly out of his control.
Elite publishing house McGraw-Hill has decided to not follow through with their initial commitment to put out his latest novel, Irving learns from his editor Andrea Tate (Hope Davis). His closest confidante and number one researcher Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) is sinking into debt and is fast becoming emotionally disturbed by continuing to work for Irving. Even Irving’s wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden, with a cockamamie German accent) is exasperated by his constant failure at not only the writing game, but also at his lame attempts to keep their crumbling, tenuous marriage together.
Most of this “bad luck” is his fault. Over the course of the film, this seeming “bad luck” has repercussions that reach as far as the highest office of the United States government and make major trouble for everyone who even comes into contact with Irving.
What Irving needs is a big success to bolster his ego and his sales. Ingeniously, with too-impeccable timing, he approaches his superiors at McGraw-Hill with the highly improbably proposition of a lifetime: Irving is going to write, with full cooperation, the autobiography of Howard Hughes.
The public, despite Hughes’s best, crazy efforts to become a hermit, is still obsessed with him. The ultra-corporate publishers get a gleam in their eye that can mean only one thing: there is money to make. Immediately, Tate asks Irving to name his price and his terms before the competition can get their grubby hands on him. Tate wants McGraw Hill to bring this out to the public exclusively, and institutes complete confidentiality amongst all employees working on the project. It becomes their dream cash cow. Irving and Suskind give up anecdotes about their “meetings” with Hughes that reveal just enough to the crew to keep them intrigued.
The only problem is that Hughes isn’t actually in on it and Irving is making it all up. He spins a yarn that grows more and more out of control over the course of the film, and gobbles up cash advances from the publishers. What follows is an astute examination of ethics in writing, the devastation that can come from telling just one whopper of a lie, and the toxic fallout that trickles down one everyone involved after the consequences play out.
While Richard Gere is perhaps one of my personal least favorite performers around (I find his work in Chicago particularly reprehensible), I must give him credit for his multi-layered, jittery portrayal of Irving. Combined with his other work this year in Todd Haynes’s hallucinogenic I’m Not There, and The Hunting Party, Gere proves that he is still a force, and that he gets better with age. While Irving is cocky and flies by the seat of his pants, which is something that we’ve seen Gere do in a host of films (ad nauseum), Gere carefully doesn’t let him get too over-the-top or smug. When the tone gets too hokey or glib, he grounds it by firing off fearful glances liked a sniper.
In the first of his great “lying” scenes in The Hoax, Irving is “playing” Hughes. He pretends to be the reclusive billionaire recounting his childhood so there will be taped “evidence” of the “conversation” between author and subject. The way director Lasse Hallstrom positions his camera during the scene (directly on Gere’s face), and the way he is lit (with a black background and a clear, golden light) allows for all of the attention to be focused on Gere’s transformation into another man, and it is glorious to watch him successfully navigate a set piece that could have easily become silly or hammy. That first monologue is a stunner that reveals a lot about the character (and also the performer), but most importantly it elicits some empathy from the audience for them both. If we are going to follow his ill-fated scheme to the end, it is important to see a bit of his thumanity, which was a smart directorial choice.
Hallstrom lets this story, based on true events, unfold in a darkly bold fashion in comparison to his other more sentimental films like The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat. It is the most interesting, engrossing film the director has made to date and it is far removed from the touchy-feely vibe emanating from most of his canon. The director’s films can veer dangerously into mediocrity, but here, with more intimate material, he seems confidently experimental. The film does not shy away from the innate unlikability of its leading man and it also explores, cannily, the damage one person’s dishonesty can inflict upon everyone around them.
Irving’s lying spills over into Dick’s life and into Edith’s. Dick, a family man with a conscious, grows increasingly paranoid and erratic as the axe is lowered onto their lies. Molina, amazing in Frida, Prick Up Your Ears, and even Spidermanis one of the best, most consistent supporting actors and his sad-sack turn here proves it again.
Edith, whose dedication to her cheating husband is mystifying, agrees to be the go-between who cashes a check from the publisher at a Swiss bank with phony credentials that say she is “H.R. Hughes”. Both of the people closest to Irving, his biggest supporters, have their lives inextricably changed, for the worse, by the actions of Irving. His mistress Nina (Julie Delpy) smartly plays dumb and distances herself from Irving in general. Something Edith and Dick should have considered long ago.
Irving, though, has the good (or is it bad?) luck to not care about the consequences of his lies. At least not until they come breathing down his neck and it is time to pay back all of the money he took.
Even though there are a couple of really ace performances, there are still a few questionable bits of smoothness scattered about that make things seem a little too neat. The real-life Irving has distanced himself from the film despite being credited as a “technical advisor”, and has said “I had nothing to do with this movie, and it had very little to do with me”. The Hoax is a very enjoyable little film, just take it with a grain of salt. It might just all be another big lie.