The whirlwind tale of Clifford Irving makes for remarkable cinema. The story has it all: deception, comedy, sex, white collar horror, and it details the private lives of legends both real and imagined; “The Hoax” is inches away from capturing that elusive glow of self-appointed glory.
When his latest novel is rejected by publishing giant McGraw-Hill, Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) rebuffs the denial with a dynamite tease for his next endeavor: the biography of elusive icon Howard Hughes. Now armed with massive advance checks and the delight of deceit, Irving has one large problem: he’s never met the reclusive and powerful Hughes. Burying himself in research with cowardly pal Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina), Irving starts to build a house of cards with his escalating lies, reaching a point where the line between real and imagined is too blurred for even Irving to notice.
“Hoax” is set in the early 1970s, right around the time when the muddy water surrounding President Nixon was beginning to boil. Director Lasse Hallstrom and screenwriter William Wheeler exploit the era to launch the incredible story of Clifford Irving and his grand symphony of deception. Through a cross-pollination of historical perspective and Hollywood fiction, “Hoax” gradually tries to interlace the rise of Irving with the fall of Nixon. Someplace in the middle is where the actual plot of the picture exists.
Through Hallstrom’s breezy direction, “Hoax” coasts on a soft propulsion of extremity as Irving’s lies start to poison the people in his life. While not expressly a comedy, the film is light on its toes, trying in vain to maintain hyper pace with Irving. Occasionally, “Hoax” finds itself in a dramatic corner it doesn’t know how to get out of, and the film could’ve easily been shaved down 10-15 minutes without doing harm to the end product. Regardless of pacing hiccups, Hallstrom’s filmmaking lays the viewer in Irving’s impulsively spun web of troubles while having fun dreaming up ways to depict these ballsy bits of dishonesty.
The glint in Richard Gere’s eye is what really keeps “Hoax” in tune. Bouncing around the frame as though he’s found the sixth golden ticket to Wonka’s factory tour, Gere is uncontainable as Irving. Playing a man with a tongue forked enough to swat away any executive naysayers and possessing no discernable moral compass, the actor is having a ball in the role, and his energy drives the film through some iffy patches. Gere is a kick when he leans into his more wild-eyed instincts, and “Hoax” serves up many a juicy scene for Gere to play all the colors of the dramatic rainbow. He’s terrific here, and I dare not consider what the film would’ve been without his singular vibrant push.
At the end of “The Hoax” the question isn’t if Irving lied, but how the viewer stills regards the crook when all his misdeeds are added up for the final tally. Irving was a cheat of the highest order, but the incredible twist of “The Hoax” is that you understand the desperation and the electric rush of his con without spending energy judging Irving. In essence, perhaps the final swindle of the film is found in the sympathies that coil around Irving even in the face of utter ethical corruption.Rating: B+