In the history of media scams, Clifford Irving committed a doozy back in 1971, when he nearly pulled off an "autobiography" of Howard Hughes, all of it fabricated, to the tune of about $1 million and enormous glory. His 15 minutes over, Irving makes for entertaining and relevant resurrected material in "The Hoax," a fictional account of the incident.
Directed by Lasse Hallström and based partly on Irving’s titular memoir, the film takes us from Irving’s initial brainstorms to the author’s undoing, which resulted in a two-year jail sentence and a "Con Man of the Year" Time cover story.
It begins as a crime caper. Irving (Richard Gere), a mildly successful author with considerable charisma and grandiose ambitions, falsely announces to McGraw-Hill publishers that he’s been conducting interviews with famed reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Assisted by his friend Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), Irving researches Hughes, steals documents, forges Hughes’ handwriting and lies wildly — all of which translates into a stratospherically lucrative book deal.
Irving nosedives, and the film enters thriller mode, when the secluded Hughes (who Irving believed would keep silent about the book’s bogusness) speaks. Additionally, Hughes uses Irving to machinate against another liar, Richard Nixon, whose paranoia over what Irving’s book might contain is linked to the Watergate break-in.
Depth isn’t the specialty of either Hallstrom or Gere, and the movie isn’t the penetrating look at an extraordinary faker that it could be. It doesn’t convey what drove Irving. But it’s an enjoyable dip in the 1970s notoriety well and a first-rate thrill ride.
While Gere doesn’t give you a character brimming with inner need or drop-dead brilliance, he takes impressive advantage of his ability to play slickness and charm. His Irving is believable and engaging as a quick-thinking fraud who, in scenes that could almost transpire in today’s greedy times, is able to deceive bestseller-seeking publishers into buying outrageous lies.
Hallström, meanwhile, known earlier for quirky gems ("What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?") but lately for mush ("An Unfinished Life"), delivers his keenest work in years. His steerage through William Wheeler’s complex, intelligent screenplay — the film’s top asset — results in crisp, immersing viewing.
Starring Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Marcia Gay Harden, Julie Delpy
Written by William Wheeler; drawn in part from a memoir by Clifford Irving
Directed by Lasse Hallström
Running time 1 hour, 56 minutes