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April 28, 2007

Movie Review – The Hoax (2007)


The Hoax 042807

After hearing about The Hoax, a film about Clifford Irving (Richard Gere), who wrote a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes in the 1970s, I considered writing a fake review of the film. I think, if you read enough reviews of a film, you can have a fairly articulate discussion about something you have never seen. It reminds me of Tom Townsend is Whit Stillman’s film Metropolitan, who never read novels but instead opted for literary criticism. I would not argue for this approach, because I feel that there is a lot of value you can get from a first-hand experience that you will never get from reading someone else’s ideas. Unfortunately for me, however, watching The Hoax was not as enjoyable as I had imagined.

Irving, soon after getting his novel rejected by McGraw-Hill, is inspired by an incident in the Bahamas where Howard Hughes insists that a hotel kicks out all of its guests in the middle of the night so that he can have some privacy. Irving tantalizes an editor at McGraw-Hill, promising that he has “the most important book of the 20th Century” without telling her what it is. Irving painstakingly falsifies a letter from Hughes, using handwriting samples published in a magazine. The forgery is so convincing that it manages to fool handwriting experts. Fueled by a very large advance, Irving works on the book with his friend Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina), a fellow writer who excels at research. Lasse Hallstrom, best known for directing the Oscar nominated films The Cider House Rules and Chocolat, makes this film after a series of disappointments.

What I liked about the film was the sheer moxie of Irving’s character. Every time it seems that his hoax is about to be exposed, he finds a way to wriggle out, usually by telling an even more outrageous lie. Many of his schemes involve sending Susskind on some outrageous errand, such as flying to the Bahamas to drop a letter in the mail, so it will bear the correct postmark, or sneaking a manuscript out of the house of a former Hughes employee, so that it can be photocopied. Gere and Molina give excellent performances in this film and become their characters – a difficult feat for such famous actors.

However, there are problems with the plot and tone of the film that are difficult to resolve. While Irving is writing the book, he dresses up as Hughes and narrates passages to a recording device, mimicking Hughes’ intonations. This is certainly more interesting to the viewer than watching Irving at a typewriter, and perhaps it is meant to show how out of touch with reality that Irving is becoming, but it still seems odd in a movie that does not aspire to be odd. The second half of the movie is peppered with increasingly bizarre fantasy sequences, suggesting that Irving is becoming unhinged. I wouldn’t have a problem with these scenes, but they are completely absent in the first half of the film. So, they seemingly come out of nowhere.

As for the tone of the film, it shifts between comic and dramatic and suspenseful, occasionally for no reason. During one scene, Irving and Susskind are at McGraw-Hill, where they are about to receive a phone call from Hughes. Irving and Susskind suddenly start running up and down the stairwell for apparently no reason other than to create some tension. Also, for reasons that do not become apparent until the end of the film, Hallstrom splices stock footage of Vietnam War protests and of Nixon’s presidency in with the narrative. The presence of the stock footage eventually makes sense, but, during most of the film, it seems that the film is reaching too hard to say something profound.

I do not want to give off the impression that this film is awful. The performances and the underlying story are the most admirable things about this film. However, when thinking about Irving’s story, I often ask myself something similar to what the great critic Gene Siskel used to ask. He often said, “Is the movie that I am watching as interesting as a documentary of the same actors having lunch together?” My question instead is always posed to any film based on true events. Is the movie more interesting than a hypothetical documentary of those events? In the case of The Hoax, I would rather watch the documentary, though it wouldn’t hurt if it was narrated by Richard Gere.

2 1/2 stars