Nobody told me that Spring was officially the season of true-life stories about people perpetrating fraud on the American people. Seriously. We had Breach a few weeks ago and now we have The Hoax. Then again, maybe it’s not an official season. Maybe it’s just Hollywood reacting to injustices they see elsewhere and have no other method of expressing their displeasure? Either way, we benefit, especially with Lasse Hallström‘s new film.
In The Hoax, Richard Gere plays novelist Clifford Irving who, in the early 70s, had some success with a true crime book and, he assumed, was well on his way to a wonderful literary career. Unfortunately, his next book was killed by bad reviews before it was even published and Irving was left to pick up the pieces. So he did what any good novelist would do: he made something up. Unfortunately, what he made up was a direct connection to reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes complete with assurances of intimate conversations, easy access and authorization for an autobiography. Naturally, McGraw-Hill, Irving’s publisher, jumped at the chance to be the first to get the eccentric businessman’s story out to the public and gave Irving the freedom and money to get the book finished.
As the story unfolds, though, the plot turns become more and more outrageous. If it wasn’t based on fact, there’s no way it would be believable. Irving lives the life of the charmed and as he’s inhabited by Gere, he takes on a meaning which gives the film the gravitas it needs to move from the ghetto of made-for-TV and into the park avenue of potential award winner.
In the capable hands of HallstrÃ¶m and Gere, Irving becomes his stories. He uses everything in his life to weave the complicated lies he needs to tell in order to make his scheme work. But ultimately, it’s this quality of subsuming himself into his work which brings about his undoing. By the end, reality and fiction intertwine so easily, it’s not easy for anyone, audience or participant, to tell one from the other. HallstrÃ¶m uses this uncertainty to full advantage, revealing all the clues you need so that what could easily have become an unsatisfying thriller instead rises to the level of psychological passion play and he is helped in his delivery by the unwavering charm of Gere in one of his most human performances since Unfaithful (2002).
Supporting Gere and really giving the entire film a frame on which Gere can, quite literally, hang himself, isAlfred Molina. Molina plays Dick Suskind, Irving’s long standing, long suffering researcher and friend. Molina invests Suskind with all the wants and desires of the second banana who yearns for more. He keeps inserting himself into the machine created by Irving and then tries to extricate himself when it all becomes to much. We feel for Suskind, but not in a nature documentary kind of way. What could easily have become the uncomfortable torture of watching Suskind as an insect trapped in a spider’s web becomes a much more complex being in a far trickier web and in Molina’s capable hands, a joy to watch.
With these two men anchoring the story, the deadweight belongs to Marcia Gay Harden. Her performance is serviceable, but ultimately doesn’t deliver the power it needs to compete with Gere and Molina. In other supporting roles, Stanley Tucci and Hope Davis are fine, but have the good sense to get out of the way of the two leads as they muscle through.
When the lights come up, The Hoax is about more than the story of a fake biography. It echoes with the seduction of power and the written word, of how the presses can bring down the powerful, and how, with just a little imagination, we can make ourselves believe anything we want.
(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)