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THE HOAX
U.S. Release Date: April 6, 2007
Distributor: Miramax
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Producer: Mark Gordon, Bob Yari
Composer: Carter Burwell
Cast: Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Stanley Tucci, Julie Delpy, Eli Wallach
Running Time: 1 hour and 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (language)

Droll Humor Caps Con Man's Downfall
by Scott Holleran

The Hoax, directed by Lasse Hallstrom and partly based on Clifford Irving's book about his infamous publishing swindle, is laden with too much information but it's amusing as a game of catch me if you can.

Essentially a droll twist on the idea that, if the truth sets you free, faking it sets you up, this fictionalized true story is, in the impeccable Mr. Hallstrom's hands, as dry as a fine wine. William Wheeler's script is fixated on the fakery, reveling in it, which depletes the already subtle sense of humor.

Richard Gere stars as Clifford Irving, an early Seventies book author with a less than super sales record who's a good writer and a better hustler. Mr. Gere assumes the role, talking his way into a luxury convertible before his agent, Andrea (Hope Davis), seals the deal on his new book. As a repossessed sofa is being walked across the lawn, he's pulling up in a brand-new Mercedes-Benz. He's like that.

But people see what they want to see, even if it's distorted, especially in the phony-baloney publishing world, where's it's all kiss-kiss only with an Ivy League vocabulary, and when Irving, stung by rejection, launches the literary con, second-handers line up for the fake book deal of the century: an autobiography of wealthy businessman Howard Hughes, written with the subject's cooperation.

The scheme is faintly credible, concocted with a forged signature from Newsweek, research and tales tall enough to match the reclusive billionaire's neurotic reputation. Paired with Alfred Molina, hilarious as an assistant assigned to shoving stolen files down his pants in one of the funniest scenes, Irving's shot at the big time almost succeeds—the scam almost becomes self-fulfilling.

This is where the impostors reach The Hoax's high point, led by Irving, who starts having Howard Hughes hallucinations, aided by his European wife (Marcia Gay Harden with the best line—"I don't have time for the drama now dahling") and triggered by the thrill of trickery to rekindle an affair. It's an intricate house of cards in which everyone, including Howard Hughes and President Nixon, seems bound to fall down.

Waiting for the collapse isn't quite as much fun as it sounds. Despite sharp observations about seeking the unearned in fame, politics and the arts—steeped in period touches like Tab soda, retro postal trucks and a grainy look—with Irving lying to everyone, himself first, The Hoax doesn't fully close the sale.

After watching Irving stick it to the phonies—and Hope Davis fits the brass tacks New York publishing woman to a tee—entangle those he loves and, inevitably, come undone, The Hoax trails off into relative obscurity, like its real life counterparts. The con man is always less interesting than the con, certainly after the game is over, and this pathological poseur is no exception.

The Hoax pulls off a wry, fast-moving study in pre-Wikipedia, pre-Jayson Blair status seekers who traffic in lies, positioning Clifford Irving's fraud as the precursor to talentless celebrities, brainless book types and journalists driven by prestige not proof. The gall of it all is both alarming—because this form of fraud has since engulfed the culture, from Janet Cooke and Joe Biden to the latest L.A. Times or publishing scandal—and humorous.

With performances of a caliber one would expect from a Lasse Hallstrom picture—Mr. Gere, Molina, Harden and Davis are terrific and John Carter, Stanley Tucci and Eli Wallach are excellent in small roles—The Hoax cunningly insinuates, intentionally or not, that the intellectuals may be perpetrating the biggest hoax of all.


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