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This â€Ë"Hoax’ is no joke

Outstanding writing, direction and acting are features of this film

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Fact and fiction, truths and falsehoods, loyalty and betrayal, are at the core of this fascinating new film from director Lasse Hallstrom.  Based on the intriguing, amusing and often disturbing story of literary hoaxer Clifford Irving and his attempt to convince the world he was Howard Hughes’ officially designated biographer, “The Hoax” takes us on a terrific, entertaining ride. 

The truth, of course, is that Irving’s supposed manuscript was mainly a figment of his own imagination and never was based on autobiographical musings of the reclusive and quirky billionaire.  Hallstrom has helmed a powerful film, introducing younger generations to one of the biggest publishing scandals in modern history. 

In 1971, the idea for the Hughes book hits Irving after a legitimate novel deal collapses at McGraw Hill.  Teasing everyone with a promise that his next effort would result in being the book of the century, Irving decides to throw all caution — and professional standards — to the wind, and sets about to manufacture his bogus memoir.  (Irving’s theft of a former Hughes aide’s manuscript for his own tell-all greatly helps his devious plan.) 

The amazing thing about Hallstrom’s film is how he has intricately structured his complicated plot, based on the outstanding screenplay written by William Wheeler.  Wheeler was inspired by Irving’s own book about the scam, penned after he served two years in jail for fraud.  From an almost light-hearted beginning, “The Hoax” propels us on quite the journey, ending up in a very dark place, making the not-so-subtle suggestion that Irving himself may have been the victim.  Could the hoaxer have been out-hoaxed? 

The implication made in the film is that Hughes used Irving and his book (which included false bribery charges against President Nixon) to force the president to ease antitrust laws in an attempt to save TWA, the airline largely owned by Hughes.  A further hint: Nixon’s fears about what might be in Irving’s book led to the Watergate break-in that ultimately resulted in the president’s resignation. 

This film is directed with orchestral precision and artistic grace.  And it is a cinematic and literary delight.  But it comes together so well largely due to some amazing actors delivering the goods.  First and foremost is a groundbreaking performance by Richard Gere as Clifford Irving — an acting job so brilliantly nuanced I wanted to stand up and cheer at the end of this film. 

As the lovable swindler, Gere exudes just the right amount of chutzpah and confidence Irving needed to con the world into believing him — at least for a while.  More important, as things begin to go awry, the actor does a great job of presenting Irving’s brave face while also allowing us to see how he’s falling apart emotionally and mentally behind that exterior bravado. 

As Irving’s loyal researcher (and partner-in-crime), Dick Susskind, Alfred Molina is a gem, quietly juxtaposed to Gere’s verbosity and extroverted personality.  While Irving almost reveled in skipping down the path of bald-faced lies and total deception, Susskind, though actively involved, still represents a kind of moral compass, reminding us of the difference between right and wrong, truth and fiction. 

All of the other supporting actors are superb, with special kudos going to Stanley Tucci in a winning, understated performance as the greedy yet suspicious publisher.  The same goes for Hope Davis as Irving’s chilly McGraw Hill editor, and Marcia Gay Harden as Irving’s long-suffering but devoted wife, Edith. 

Though the film is clearly staged as a period piece, Hallstrom has given us a picture that resonates perfectly with the political and sociological climate of 2007.  Irving was obsessed with success and fame — and using those attributes to achieve great wealth.  The idea of doing “whatever it takes” to achieve those goals is something we see constantly in this era of over-the-top fascination with celebrity culture — from Hollywood to Washington to New York.  It’s not that Hallstrom has overtly tied “The Hoax” to today’s headlines, but the themes of loyalty and betrayal — both public and private — and political corruption at the highest levels are themes that audiences will be quick to relate to our current problems. 

This film is a true winner.  It entertains, but also makes us think about the lengths some people will go to achieve success they believe, for whatever reason, is their natural birthright.  In the case of Clifford Irving, his publishing hoax took on a further tragic element as he traded true talent for a mythological creation — one that ultimately destroyed him and his reputation.

The Hoax

★★★1/2

Starring: Richard Gere, Alfred Molina and Hope Davis

Director: Lasse Hallstrom

Rated: R for language

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