Everybody loves a good con artist, a guy who can bluff his way into or out of anything. He's isn't violent, not a gangster, but a smooth-talking charmer whose poker face doesn't flinch no matter how dangerous or delicate the situation gets. Lasse Hallström
's latest, The Hoax, offers a portrait of such a con artist, a real-life fabulist who makes James Frey (the disgraced "non-fiction" writer behind 2003's A Million Little Pieces) and his shenanigans look like chump change.Richard Gere
, perfectly cast, plays Clifford Irving, a down-and-out writer who in 1971 wrote (and nearly got published) a fake biography of Howard Hughes. Desperate to jump-start his career, Irving duped his editor Andrea Tate (Hope Davis
) and the top dogs at McGraw-Hill into believing he was not only a friend of Hughes, the notorious recluse, but that the billionaire had tapped Irving to write his life story. Smelling a publishing sensation, McGraw-Hill offered Irving a then-record publishing deal, and the writer suddenly found himself the crown prince of the publishing world. Article continues below
Working from William Wheeler's adaptation of Irving's own memoirs, Hallström keeps a generally light touch over the material. This is good news for Gere and Alfred Molina
, who plays fellow writer and reluctant partner-in-crime Dick Suskind. Irving and Suskind make for a pair of bumbling sleuths, and, as played by Gere and Molina, there's a nervous and unexpected comic energy between them. Chief among The Hoax's small but lively amusements is watching Irving and Suskind slip out of one mess and into another. Irving even fools handwriting experts and Hughes associates with forged letters, faked tape interviews in which he affects Hughes' vocal patterns, and fabricates entire conversations with Hughes, off-the-cuff, to appease his publisher's suspicions. It's only when word of Irving's ploy leaks to the media that the question of his veracity is taken to task until Hughes himself, emerging from a shroud of secrecy, blows the whistle on Irving in a bizarre televised conference call with politicos.
Suskind, the morally aggrieved of the two, protests against going through with their scheme at every turn. But Irving's snake-oil charm wins him over. It's the same charm that keeps Irving's marriage to Edith (Marcia Gay Harden
) glued together. With convincing shows of remorse and devotion, Irving overrides Edith's displeasure of his ongoing affair with Nina (Julie Delpy
), a would-be actress. Wheeler interweaves Irving's professional conniving with his domestic ones -- their fortunes rising and falling in sync, one affecting the other in an efficient, albeit predictable, strategy for tracing the man's rise-and-fall narrative arc.
Gere capably conveys just enough of Irving's inner panic, roiling beneath the surface of sly grins and heady boasts, to get us to sympathize with, and, yes, even root for him as the stakes rise higher and higher. In examining the mind of a capitol liar, The Hoax succeeds in depicting how all lies -- and, thereby, all fiction -- is a marriage of the imagination and of real life; by re-contextualizing events into a fictional setup and interchanging their order, Irving invents his fanciful lies. It's a truthful observation about how truths are twisted to fit one's strategic needs. Hallström also nicely evokes the period, in all its polyestered and frizzy haired glory, and takes amusing digs at the gathering storm of political scandal enveloping Irving's America.
As a stylist, however, Hallström's never been much to shout about, especially with his recent films, and such is the case with The Hoax. As the story's temperature rises, we crave for Hallström's style -- some gesture from the camera or editing -- to jolt itself awake, a snap of subversion or wickedness equal to Irving's own high-wire stunt work. When Irving sinks deeper into his own delusional cauldron, believing in his own paranoia about Hughes' agents tailing him, it whiffs of dramatic contrivance, derivative of similar material like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Wheeler and Hallström's attempts to steer towards "darker" territory fall flat and long-winded. Still, as a well-behaved caper comedy featuring standout performances from Gere and Molina, The Hoax pulls a good con, and we play along, delightedly.