CrankyÕs Flickershow Reviews

By Neil Richter

Stranger Than Fiction


       The plot of The Hoax, new on video this week, is based off of the memoirs of a man who almost pulled off one of the more elaborate cons in American history.  In 1971, small time writer Clifford Irving, along with two hapless accomplices, one of which was his own wife, hatched a scheme to publish a fake autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.  IrvingÕs publisher, McGraw Hill, eagerly took the bait, eventually supplying Irving with a one million dollar advance for rights to the book. (an absolutely unheard-of sum at that time.)  Irving took the con as far as it could possibly go, stealing and forging documents, faking interviews, even fabricating communiquˇs ŌdirectlyÕ from Howard to publishers.  Eventually, as things usually end in these sorts of stories, IrvingÕs plans came crashing down.

       Still, it makes for great cinema.  For the vast majority of its running time, The Hoax ably and nimbly taps into that great human desire:  to get away with something really really big.  A great deal of this is thanks to the terrific ensemble acting.  As McGraw Hill higher-ups, Hope Davis and Stanley Tucci exude astounding cold-bloodedness that manages to be amusing while never slipping into parody.  Marcia Gay Harden finds a way to harness audience sympathy under an iffy Swiss accent as IrvingÕs long-suffering wife.  The standout among the supporting cast however is Alfred Molina as IrvingÕs foolishly loyal friend, Dick Suskind.  As the hapless patsy along for the ride, Molina works wonders at achieving pathos while accomplishing some terrifically subtle physical comedy.  ItÕs another great performance by the man who gave us the only memorable Spider-Man villain in an already-bloated franchise (but thatÕs another storyÉ..)

       I can say what I will about the supporting cast, but it is undeniable that the leading man towers over all of them.  With frizzed-out hair and a massive fake schnozz, Richard Gere inhabits the role of Clifford Irving like some kind of perverse clown on speed.  He practically hovers in mid-air during the early portions of the film, conning everyone in sight with a palpable nervous energy that boggles the mind.  This is what movie-star confidence can lend to the right role.  The magic of GereÕs work here is the tightrope walk that he manages, too much in one direction and he becomes an emotionally cloying anti-hero, too much in the other and heÕs absolutely despicable.  Somehow, Gere makes us cheer for this guy while knowing all along that heÕs an absolute slimeball.  No doubt about it, this Irving guy is a piece of work who will betray his best friend in a heartbeat, but we just canÕt bring ourselves to hate him.  HeÕs like that friend who you just know you should have kicked to the curb years ago, but you just canÕt help but love the way he lies.  Turns out, Irving inspires dubious confidence in all those around him because, against all odds, heÕs actually starting to believe some of his own bs.  Herein lies the problem.

       During its breezy first half, The Hoax glides along beautifully, as good as any caper IÕve seen all year.  Problem is, director Lasse Hallstrom (who really needs a hit, everything heÕs directed since Chocolat has flopped) decides that he better turn this story into an out-and-out tragedy.  Big mistake.  He gets so wrapped up in devising CliffordÕs comeuppance that he jettisons the nervous energy that pushed this film above the crowd in the first place.  Instead, we are treated to IrvingÕs increasingly paranoid delusions, which become increasingly out-of-place as the film goes on.  <<possible spoiler>>For awhile Irving seems to be trying to become Howard Hughes.  Then he finds himself pursued by HowardÕs goonsÉor is he.  ItÕs all rather mystifying and goes nowhere.  Furthermore, Hallstrom goes for a murky subplot involving Nixon and Watergate that doesnÕt really go anywhere either.  Despite his best efforts, HallstromÕs attempts (and there are many) to make some sort of statement tying the Viet Nam era to the present-day all fall flat.  Truth be told, the denouement is often a tough balance to achieve in a story such as this, but thereÕs a right way to do it.  I mean, look at how Scorsese mowed down the entire cast in the final reel of The Departed and still managed to get away with it.  This is not to say that all is lost, however.  GereÕs performance works overtime right through to the finish, and HallstromÕs loose, jazzy camera makes things interesting, but when the fun runs out, the engine also mostly runs dry.  It picks up slightly for an appropriately bittersweet ending, set aptly enough to The Rolling Stones You CanÕt Always Get What you Want, but the sweet taste of the early chapters remains slightly washed-away.

       Despite all that though, thereÕs too much to like here to warrant the filmÕs lackluster theatrical run.  My guess is that there just wasnÕt enough youth in the cast.  Maybe if they had Heath Ledger starring as Irving something might have turned upÉ  Nevertheless, the film is by no means a failure.  Even if you dislike like Richard Gere (and I certainly do) youÕll still find yourself liking his performance here, and thatÕs just the tip of the iceberg.  Rent it.