The story behind director Lasse Hallstrom's latest film, The Hoax, is ludicrous beyond imagination – and also true.
And vastly entertaining. Fakes may make sorry mates, business partners and presidents, but as movie anti-heroes, they are bottled charisma as the charlatan cinema of Catch Me If You Can, Shattered Glass and now The Hoax prove.
It's 1971, and, casting about for an unbeatable book proposal, real-life novelist Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) strikes upon a doozy sure to rekindle the flagging interest of McGraw-Hill publishing exec Andrea Tate (Hope Davis). Every newspaper and magazine in America seems to be atwitter about the reclusive, germ-phobic billionaire Howard Hughes. Irving pitches the idea of writing a biography with Hughes' help, despite the fact that he has never and will never have access to the man. His reasoning for pulling off the scam is that a recluse would never come forward to refute the book's fictitious account of his life.
Based on Irving's own tale of his grand deception, The Hoax has been adapted by screenwriter William Wheeler as a penetrating insight into not just one grifter, but our national character susceptible to fast-talking con men and show-me-the-money greed.
Irving's wingman in his sinister literary endeavor is his sweaty, lying friend and researcher, Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), who helps Irving steal the Air Force files and unpublished book manuscripts of former Hughes employees that will comprise the fake biography. Dick also is the angel on devil Irving's shoulder whose second job, after helping Irving research the book, is to keep his pal from cheating again on his wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), with an exotic socialite (Julie Delpy).
Hallstrom (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) makes a connection between lying and libido in The Hoax, suggesting that the adrenaline rush from the money and deception causes Irving's sexual desire to rise accordingly.
Loaded with suspense as Irving concocts ever-greater yarns and squirms his way out of the increasingly tight corners that McGraw-Hill's suspicious executives force him into, The Hoax is a plagiarist's thrill ride. Some of the film's most enjoyable moments come in the film-noir-inspired scenes (also fake) that visualize Irving's mix of truth and fiction and illustrate his persuasive talent as a bullshitter.
Even with his greedy hand perpetually caught in the cookie jar, Gere as Irving brings pathos to his literary guttersnipe, a manipulative, desperate and even charming underdog. He's far more appealing than the smug Masters of the Universe such as McGraw-Hill head honcho Shelton Fisher (Stanley Tucci), who threatens to foil his plans. It is a testament to Gere's inherent charisma that, even when he's double-crossing his wife and fleecing his publishing house, you virtually hold your breath with the hope that he will get away with it.
Hallstrom is intent on not making Irving's case some isolated freak incident, and grounds it in a larger American system that rewards graft at every level. As Irving gets deeper into his lie, and uncovers a connection between Howard Hughes and Richard Nixon, his puny hoax is soon dwarfed by the larger battle between powerful men. In America, small-time thieves are chumps who serve prison time, but big-time thieves in the corporate and government sphere cut deals.
It is impossible to watch The Hoax and not think of the similar, interconnected organism of big business and George W. Bush's America or the dirty dealings in high places that have dominated our own age of Enrons and Tycos. Like the recent Shooter or The Good Shepherd, The Hoax is another film that should make audiences look askance at the good-old-boy network running their country.
In The Hoax, impersonation and lying are the dark subtext of our self-made society where truth is stretched thin and the populace is susceptible to a charismatic, fast-talking charlatan. Hallstrom foregrounds fakery of every sort in The Hoax, with its home furnishings bought on credit, its masquerade balls of covered faces, and wives who trade their husbands' sinister dealings for security and money.
When the subject matter is this rich and idiosyncratic, The Hoax succeeds not by glitzing up its period details to the point of kitsch. Instead, Hallstrom offers pregnant hints of the time in details such as the hideously ugly ecofeminist paintings Edith works on while her husband is out swindling, or in off-the-cuff nods to the touchy-feely zeitgeist of the time in the soft-drink spirituality of Coke's "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" commercial.
Most often, though, The Hoax takes its visual and moral cue from Vietnam protests interwoven to suggest Irving's transgression was small potatoes compared with the massive crimes represented by Vietnam and the Nixon White House. In such a political climate of chicanery and deceit, writing a fictitious biography seems merely naughty.