Thursday, January 31, 2008

Movie Review: "The Hoax"

Starring Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Julie Delpy and Stanley Tucci
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

Official Web site

The old adage that sometimes life is stranger than fiction could certainly apply to the author Clifford Irving, who perpetrated the biggest scam in book publishing history in the early 1970s when he claimed to have written the autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.

Details of the dangerously bold decision by Irving are portrayed in “The Hoax,” an entertaining, yet uneven look into how so many seemingly intelligent people were fooled for so long. Portrayed by Richard Gere, in one of his best performances, Irving is an author on the cusp of a big contract with publishing giant McGraw-Hill. But when his book deal falls apart, Irving is left with some big debts to pay and is seemingly desperate for answers to his problem.

Seeing a magazine story about Hughes provides him with the inspiration for his next book. Of course, the primary problem with his book was that Hughes was a recluse by this point in his life, rarely talking with anyone, even his closest advisors. Irving decides to use this information to his advantage in writing his book. While he wouldn’t actually have access to Hughes, he also gambled that the billionaire wouldn’t likely want to break his silence to refute the book.

With the assistance of his friend and researcher Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina, in a lively performance), Irving sets out to assemble the book, claiming to McGraw-Hill and Life magazine that he has direct access to Hughes. He proves to be a rather affable and adept con man in this process, coming up with convincing handwriting samples and wild demands that the publishers felt compelled to believe. After all, Hughes had long been considered extremely eccentric, so the information Irving was feeding them was hard to dispute.

The script by William Wheeler, an adaptation of Irving’s book on the subject, is perceptive and features a number of great showdowns between Irving and various skeptics in the publishing company. In several instances, Irving looks to be backed into an inescapable corner, only to somehow emerge unscathed. The public’s desire to want to know more about Hughes likely fueled the desire to believe anything that was being dropped in front of them.

While Gere is very good as Irving, some elements of his life are skimmed over, such as his strained relationship with his wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden). Plus, the pacing by director Lasse Hallstrom is somewhat sluggish, as it spends too much time getting to the publishers’ attempts to poke holes in his story. Then, the movie chooses to gloss over the end result of the scam once it starts to unravel.

Despite its occasional missteps, “The Hoax” still manages to fascinate, presenting a man who realized that some people, when given a tantalizing and mysterious subject such as Howard Hughes, are willing to believe almost anything. But, as with all crimes, Irving also learned the importance of not getting caught.

Grade: B
(Rated R for language.)

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