Hoax, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/06/07 00:51:32
(Worth A Look)
A couple of weeks ago saw the release of “Color Me Kubrick,” a film based on the real-life case of a flamboyantly ambitious con man who scammed people out of minor amounts of cash by somehow convincing them that he was actually the famously reclusive filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Now we have “The Hoax,” a film based on the real-life case of another flamboyantly ambitious con man who scammed people out of major amounts of cash by somehow convincing him that he was writing the authorized biography of the even-more-famously reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Some people may feel a sense of unease at the idea of paying money to celebrate the accomplishments of such a person and allowing him to profit further from his crime but “The Hoax” is such a shamelessly entertaining endeavor that even the most sensitive individuals are likely to find themselves enthralled by its cheerfully larcenous charms and the sight of Richard Gere kicking out all the stops in one of the most delightful performances of his career.Set in 1972, Gere stars as Clifford Irving, an ambitious writer whose most recent book, a biography of infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory, met with critical acclaim but few sales. As the film opens, he has just completed a novel and Andrea Tate (Hope Davis), his editor at the publishing house of McGraw-Hill, assures him that it is a brilliant work that her bosses are sure to accept after reading it over the weekend. Alas, things don’t go well and when Clifford returns on Monday, Andrea brusquely tells him that the book didn’t go over well and that his proposed deal (one that he has already begun writing checks based on) is kaput. At a loss, Clifford goes down to an island resort with best friend Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina) to plot his next move but even this falls apart when Howard Hughes, the owner of the hotel, arrives and orders the guests removed so that he can have the place for himself. A few days later, after stewing in his decidedly inferior accommodations, Clifford returns to McGraw-Hill offering them the chance to publish his new work–the official biography of Hughes. As proof, he submits a hand-written letter from Hughes himself authorizing Clifford to pen his life story with his full assistance and cooperation.
Both the letter and the book are, of course, complete fabrications–we see Clifford aping Hughes’s handwriting from a sample published in “Newsweek”–and you may find yourself wondering why Clifford would come up with a scam that would inevitably collapse at the inevitable moment when Hughes would denounce it as a fake. If you think about it for a bit, though, there is a certain mad genius to the entire enterprise. Since Hughes had been living in virtual seclusion by that point in his life, it would make sense to the unwary that he might demand that all the dealings (including the payments) would go directly through Clifford and that there could be not a whisper about the project outside of McGraw-Hill until publication. Since whispers of his increasingly bizarre behavior were already widespread, it would make sense as well that he might deny any knowledge of either the book or Clifford Irving. Most importantly, while the publishers do consider the possibility that it might be a fake, they also consider the possibility that it might not be one and they would rather take the chance of wasting time and money on something that might be a fraud than have it turn out to be the genuine article that winds up in the hands of a rival publisher. Besides, if it did turn out to be a fake and brought Hughes out of seclusion, that alone might prove to be a bigger story in the long run than if the book had been real in the first place.
As the story progresses and we watch Clifford as he steals important documents for information, fakes audio interviews and enlists both Richard and long-suffering wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) into his plot–even as he cheats on the latter with the glamorous and ambitious European sex bomb Nina Van Pallandt (Julie Delpy in fine, sexy form)–we keep waiting for the inevitable scene in which everything grinds to a halt so that we can learn that Clifford is really a good guy after all and is going to all of these elaborate lengths for a good reason that we in the audience can all understand and sympathize with. Thankfully, director Lasse Hallstrom (finally regaining a sense of life and spirit behind the camera after such recent drags as “Chocolat,” “The Shipping News” and “An Unfinished Life”) and screenwriter William Wheeler were apparently as bored with the idea of writing and filming such a moment as I was with the idea of seeing it. Instead, they offer no apologies or explanations or sanctimonious justifications for Clifford and his actions and then dare us to still like him even when there is earthly reason to do so. Amazingly, they manage to pull off this to a surprisingly successful degree–we find ourselves instantly embroiled in Clifford’s audacious plan, we squirm along with him as he tries to worm his way out of any number of roadblocks and uncomfortable questions and we grin along with him when it looks as though he just might be able to pull off this scam after all.
Aiding immeasurably in this regard is the funny, take-no-prisoners central performance from Richard Gere as Clifford Irving. While Gere has always been a strong and interesting actor over the years, if too often underrated, he has never really demonstrated what one might regard as a light touch as a performer–in his occasional stabs at frothier material (such as “Runaway Bride” or “Shall We Dance”), you could feel the effort that he was going through in order to seem effortless. Here, the part of Clifford seems to have sparked something in him and the result is the loosest and funkiest performance he has turned in since his wild-card turn in “Breathless” nearly 25 years ago–there is a real since of joy in watching him go from one con to another with such abandon that he finds it hard to determine where the truth ends and the bullshit begins. There are a lot of neat supporting turns as well–besides those previously mentioned, there are also appearances from Eli Wallach as a former Hughes compatriot and Stanley Tucci as the wary head of McGraw-Hill–but the standout among them is Alfred Molina’s hysterical work as Dick Susskind, a guy with a neurotic compulsion to make his already questionable situation worse because of his chronic inability to keep his mouth shut. (While being searched as he leaves a military installation, he asks the guards what they would do if he turned out to be Russian–not a good idea under any circumstance but especially not when one has purloined documents stuffed down one’s pants.) Together, Gere and Molina make for a truly inspired comedy team–watching them play off of each other, you can almost literally see the sparks bouncing between them as they go about their increasingly unhinged patter.NOTE: If you enjoy “The Hoax”–and I can’t imagine a circumstance in which that wouldn’t be the case–and you want to know a little more about the whole story, I can only recommend that you get your hands on the Criterion Collection DVD of “F For Fake,” Orson Welles’s dazzling 1975 essay film on the blurry line between truth and illusion. The real Irving pops up in the film itself–both as the chronicler of the notorious faker Elmyr de Hory and the creator of his own equally notorious fake–and the extras included both a 2000 “60 Minutes” interview with Irving about the hoax and a recording of the press conference that Howard Hughes called to expose and denounce it.
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