Three and a half stars (R)
The Hoax is a based-on-fact caper movie about Clifford Irving’s outrageous early ’70s mega-scam, when he secured a lucrative book deal as the co-author of the “autobiography” of billionaire recluse Howard Hughes.
Before going into detail about the movie, which is well-acted, gripping and consistently entertaining, let’s take a moment to reflect on reality and cinema. When a film opens with the words “this is a true story,” that generally means they only lied a little (notable exception: We Are Marshall, which lied a lot). Movies listed as “based on fact” are usually even further divorced from the truth. The final category is “inspired by a true story,” which means the production is almost total bullshit.
Consider also that William Wheeler’s screenplay for The Hoax is based on the book of the same name, which was written by Clifford Irving, the con artist himself.
So how based on fact is The Hoax? I can tell you that, while liberties are taken (Irving’s pre-hoax book was not rejected by the publisher, he did not attend Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball, yadda yadda yadda), the movie gets the gist of what really happened.
Of course, I could be lying.
The Lasse Hallstrom (Casanova, Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) film opens at a key point in the scam, then hops back in time to tell the story from the beginning. The tone is jaunty at first, but the mood darkens as the scheme begins to unravel. Still, there are comic moments throughout, and the sheer audacity of Irving’s con fuels the film.
Hallstrom intercuts historical footage of Vietnam War protests to establish the era and set up a crucial third-act link between Hughes and the Nixon Administration. The basic set-up: After his new novel gets passed over (ahem) by McGraw Hill, Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) cooks up a pitch for “the book of the century,” claiming that the intensesly private Howard Hughes contacted him to co-author his autobiography.
Irving believes he can get away with his colossal fraud because Hughes would rather let the book be published than expose himself by stepping forward to stop it. The writer’s best friend and researcher, Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), helps him create a convincing manuscript, and his wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) offers support when needed, having more or less forgiven him for his affair with a European baroness (Julie Delpy).
The bogus biography captured the attention of the world and the story of the rise and fall of Irving and company is fascinating, regardless of how much of it has been trumped up for the screen. Richard Gere does fine work with his best role in years, using both his charm and his air of elusiveness — which has hurt him in other films — in service of the part. Alfred Molina is wonderful as Irving’s partner — the contrast between Gere’s cool and Molina’s flummoxed persona is a hoot. And Marcia Gay Harden does a nice job crafting an opaque, but interesting character.
According to Clifford Irving, “A man who says something completely implausible will always be believed.” The Hoax shows that he was right — up to a point.