It’s good. Would I lie to you?
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Lasse Hallström
Cast: Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Writers rarely make good subjects for film. They’re too insulated, too self-centered and can rarely be considered men of action (Hemingway aside). Liars, on the other hand, are fine cinematic protagonists. Liars are interesting and complex and frequently quite outgoing. And when you think about it, there’s a rather fine line between writing and lying. It’s the job of writers--those penning fiction, anyway--to make things up. Consequently, people shouldn’t be too shocked to find out that even journalists occasionally fabricate their stories. Tales of disgraced journalists like Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass should come as no surprise to readers who demand more and more sensational stories on their front pages.
Writers? Not all that compelling. Lying writers? Fascinating stuff. As proof, we got 2003’s Shattered Glass, the mesmerizing morality play about newspaper reporter Stephen Glass’ fall from grace. By way of follow-up, we are greeted in 2007 with The Hoax, a punchy, humorous take on author Clifford Irving’s infamous and improbable literary hoax from the early ’70s.
Richard Gere (complete with kinky brown hair and fake nose) stars as Irving, a published but unsuccessful author schlepping manuscripts around the New York publishing houses. Unable to come up with a credible moneymaker and facing down mounting debts, Irving panics. In a fit of desperation and false bravado, he demands a meeting with the head honcho of industry giant McGraw-Hill, claiming to have “the book of the century” in hand. The only problem? Irving has got nothing. He tries to come up with something, putting heads together with his pal and longtime researcher Richard Suskind (played with comic abandon by chummy Alfred Molina).
At this point in pop cultural history, reclusive crackpot billionaire Howard Hughes is the talk of the country. Fueled by creative inspiration (not to mention a few dozen none-too-subtle “hints” from the universe), Irving strides into the McGraw-Hill offices and spins an outrageous yarn about meeting Howard Hughes and securing exclusive rights for his autobiography. He is, of course, lying through his teeth. That doesn’t stop him from eventually landing a $1 million advance.
The crazy thing about Irving’s scheme is that Hughes is still alive and could, at any time, refute his claims. Irving bets on the fact that, by the early ’70s, Hughes is so reclusive and so crazy that he won’t bother to denounce Irving’s book. It’s a mad plan, and one that quickly unravels.
Gere, surprisingly, puts his all into this role. It’s his best acting since ... wow. Certainly since Chicago, and maybe ever. Over the course of the film, you really feel the naughty glee Irving experiences over his outrageous fabrications: Given the unpredictable subject of his book, the more ridiculous his lies, the more people are inclined to believe him. Conversely, you can nearly smell the guy’s flop sweat as he frantically constructs his increasingly flimsy house of cards, hoping to stay just one half-step ahead of the truth.
Swedish director Lasse Hallström, using a light touch, delivers his best work since 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. The film only stumbles in relying a bit too heavily on Irving’s 1972 mea culpa The Hoax. Irving’s own literary account of the incident obviously cuts the author a lot of slack. Irving, for example, may have fabricated the entire “autobiography,” but allegedly wrote it all based on secret eyewitness accounts of actual events. (It was fake, you see, but it was true.) Also, the film suggests, Hughes tacitly knew about and supported Irving’s work. Finally, the film makes a possibly true, but really hard-to-swallow, assertion about the unlikely triangle of Hughes, Irving and President Nixon. Hallström and his screenwriters push this point, perhaps to drive home a more contemporary message about government cover-ups and media lies.
What starts out as a jaunty and humorous romp soon turns darker and more emotional. The film is on surest ground when it simply treats Irving like a junkie hooked on the art of fakery. Our duplicitous anti-hero even reunites with an old mistress (Julie Delpy), giving him the opportunity to fib to his wife as well. As the con game wears on, Irving starts believing in his own lies, dressing up like Hughes and even “channeling” the nutty billionaire in order to dictate his fraudulent manuscript. By the time Irving is kidnapped by Hughes’ personal gestapo and spirited off to the Bahamas in the middle of the night, the line between reality and illusion has beautifully blurred. Did that incident really happen? Most likely not. Did Irving’s fake book about Hughes really help bring down the Nixon White House? It’s doubtful. As Molina’s panicky character tells his pal, “You’re just not that important.”
Mixing the conniving antics of Catch Me If You Can, the chaotic literary cameraderie of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the paranoid Watergate-era conspiracy of All The President’s Men, The Hoax spins a humorous, occasionally mesmerizing character study of (to paraphrase Al Franken) lies and the lying liars who tell them.