The Hoax

It’s a shame we don’t still live in the days of Howard Hughes, the reclusive, obsessive-compulsive billionaire who once fascinated America with his bizarre behavior. No one really captures our attention in quite the same way for quite the same reasons anymore. In the early 1970s, he was iconic enough — and publicity-phobic enough — that novelist Clifford Irving almost got away with publishing a fake “autobiography” of the tycoon.

“The Hoax” is an account of that incident, and it’s as playful and buoyant a film as Lasse Hallstrom has ever made. The director’s penchant for dopey sentiment (“The Cider House Rules,” “Chocolat,” “The Shipping News,” etc.) has at last faded away, leaving him free to have fun without being bogged down by sappiness.

The year is 1971, and Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) has had his latest novel rejected by his usual publisher, McGraw-Hill. He’s familiar with fakery, having written the biography of notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory just two years earlier, and he has a certain admiration for con men. He’s dipped into that well himself now and then, notably in trying to keep his wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), in the dark about his mistress, Nina (Julie Delpy).

Brainstorming with his historian buddy Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) for something to write about, Cliff hits on the idea of penning Hughes’ life story. The old coot hasn’t appeared in public in years and turns down all publicity requests. That means it’s unlikely he’d allow an outsider to help him write his autobiography — but it also means he’s unlikely to come forward and denounce the book once it’s written. His silence on the matter will be seen as confirmation that Cliff’s book is legit. It’s a pretty brilliant plan, actually.

Dick is terrified and wants no part in Cliff’s crazy scheme; of course, in the grand tradition of terrified best friends who want no part in their buddies’ crazy schemes, he gets dragged into it anyway, the sweaty, nervous Barney Rubble to Cliff’s smooth-talking Fred Flintstone. Dick is termed Cliff’s “research assistant,” and the two successfully convince the McGraw-Hill bigwigs (Hope Davis and Stanley Tucci among them, both sharp as ever) that they’ve been meeting with Hughes regularly and gathering all the data necessary to ghost-write a compelling autobiography. McGraw-Hill eagerly snaps up the rights with a very large advance check.

Cliff and Dick are sort of stuck now; now they actually have to write the damn thing. They dig up all the Hughes-related interviews, articles, news stories, and books they can find. They pore over court transcripts and congressional hearings. Cliff learns how to imitate Hughes’ speaking voice and syntax, the better to manufacture tape-recorded “interviews” with him. He copies Hughes’ handwriting from letters reprinted in Newsweek and creates fake notes supposedly written to him by Hughes. He and Dick go all out to perpetrate a believable fraud, all in the interest of making a few hundred thousand dollars.

The film cleverly makes us feel constantly certain of two contradictory things: one, that Cliff is actually going to get away with it; and two, that Cliff’s house of cards is going to collapse at any moment. Cliff seems to live in that limbo-land, too, and Richard Gere (in his most exuberantly slick performance since “Chicago”) plays him with the panic-tinged euphoria that marks the life of a huckster. It’s incredibly entertaining to see him in a room full of publishing-house suits, about to be caught in his lies, yet still spinning the bullcrap with as much assurance and moral certainty as if he were Abraham Lincoln. He’ll be painted so far into a corner that you figure there’s NO WAY he can get out of it, that this is finally the moment he’ll have to come clean — and then he keeps going, boldly forging ahead. It’s a thing of beauty, to see a man tell lies that well.

Also a thing of beauty: Alfred Molina as Dick Suskind. Dick was not blessed with the gift of blarney the way Cliff was, and Molina’s skittish performance gives the film some much-needed heart. We admire (though we do not approve of) Cliff, but it’s Dick — flustered, uncertain, and morally grounded — that we actually relate to. He’s the one we would be, if we got into this situation.

It’s fascinating to see what happens to Cliff as he goes further and further past the point of no return. His paranoia and obsession over the project makes him start to resemble the man he’s writing about — a man he’s never met and probably never will meet. When he lies, he seldom manufactures details out of thin air. He generally uses elements from real life, conflating true events into new, fabricated ones, so that everything has a wisp of truth in it. That makes him all the more insidious, of course. Not only do his lies border closely on reality, but they’re true enough to him that he can justify his telling of them. Eventually, he’s so far gone into deception that the character becomes distasteful to us, a destructive man without conscience rather than a harmless, entertaining liar.

William Wheeler’s screenplay was adapted from Irving’s own account, and now Irving has publicly disapproved of the movie. That makes for a nice ironic meta-twist in the whole thing: The guy who faked someone’s autobiography isn’t happy with the liberties taken in adapting his own. Karma’s funny that way, isn’t it, Cliff?

B+ (1 hr., 55 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, a little sexual innuendo.)