To the news that Lasse Hallström's The Hoax dramatizes the famous scandal associated with the name Clifford Irving, many prospective viewers are bound to respond, "Clifford who?"
Those of us who remember the Nixon era, on the other hand, may well recall the name yet remain fuzzy about the man and the reasons for making a movie about him. Irving? The one who was busted for peddling a fake biography of Howard Hughes to a major publisher? Was that really a big deal or just another media flash-in-the-pan?
I will admit that I wasn't particularly fascinated with the case back when, and that opinion that hasn't changed much with this new movie, which is long on energetic cinematic prestidigitation and short on clear-eyed trenchancy.
As I'm sure you've already deduced, Hallström's film fits into several easily identifiable current sub-genres, including the boomer public-history/nostalgia saga, the investigation of media malfeasance and corruptibility drama, the truth vs. fiction and artist vs. impostor brain-teaser, and so on.
In fact, if you put all those elements into a blender and mixed them into a silky-smooth cocktail, it would inevitably have the blandness of the over-familiar. No doubt sensing that, the makers of The Hoax have compensated by trying to make their movie entertaining as hell. But the big problem there is that the more "entertaining" the movie becomes—fast, flashy, breathlessly contrived—the less interesting it is.
Still, the filmmakers deserve credit for two key decisions that together make their work worthy of a place in your Netflix queue for next fall.
First, they center their tale on the bumptious friendship between Irving and his collaborator/researcher Dick Susskind, a pair of scamsters who fit each other like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Second, the moviemakers cast these parts with, respectively, Richard Gere and Alfred Molina, charismatic, expertly creative actors who do more to enliven The Hoax than it often does to support them.
The story takes place over a few months in the early 1970s. Irving, a none-too-successful writer looking for a shot at the big time, hatches his scheme after seeing a story about Hughes in Newsweek that includes a sample of the aviation-pioneer-turned-nutty-recluse's handwriting. Enlisting Susskind's help, he masters copying the scrawl, composes a proposal for a Hughes autobiography (to be assisted by and delivered to Irving, of course) and takes it to McGraw-Hill.
Naturally, they flip over it. And, after taking the immediate precaution of having it examined by handwriting experts (it passes), they have no overriding reason to disbelieve Irving, an established writer they've published before. Who, after all, would be crazy enough to pawn off a fake autobiography of one of the century's most famous men when the ruse was bound to be discovered? That way lies certain disgrace and career suicide, no?
Apparently, Irving didn't think so. While one of the movie's weak points is that it doesn't delve deeply into the writer's psychology or the logic of his most fateful decision, he evidently was convinced that he could get away with the monumental fraud because Hughes' mania for privacy would keep him from blowing the whistle.
Once the train of deception is set in motion, it quickly gathers its own momentum. Certainly, the executives at McGraw-Hill (two are ably played by Hope Davis and Stanley Tucci) and Life magazine, which bids to serialize the book, come off as deeply foolish in a way that indicts the cupidity and celebrity worship of their industry. Yet the movie wisely doesn't paint them in broad-brush caricature; it doesn't need to.
And no doubt much of their headlong credulousness must be credited to the supremely ballsy game of liar's poker played by Irving. Any time the executives get suspicious and call him in for an accounting, he simply invents a more outrageous fib than the one before, and concocts the evidence to back it up.
In all these machinations, two scenes stood to out me as capturing the essence of Irving's exploits. In one, Susskind's blurting out to the McGraw-Hill execs that Hughes gave him a prune then obliges him and Irving to improvise an account of the incident. In Hallström's docu-style dramatization of the imagined meeting, the two writers fly to a remote area of Mexico, are driven to an empty hotel on the top of mountain, and there, behind a gauzy curtain of mosquito netting, behold a wraith-like figure who reaches out and hands Susskind a prune—organically grown, he says.
The surreal absurdity of this tale, paradoxically enough, is exactly what makes it seem believable. But more than that, the movie's account of its telling evokes the extent to which everyone—publishers, writers, us—want to believe Irving's nuttiest inventions.
The other scene comes when Irving and Susskind are holed up trying to get a fix on Hughes' authorial voice for their bogus manuscript. They listen to a tape of Hughes' testimony before a Congressional committee many years before (Hallström shows us the filmed record too), and the angular entrepreneur's raspy Texas drawl captivates Irving so completely that he delightedly begins imitating it, creating a credible character as he does.
Here—thanks both to the sudden appearance of the real Hughes and the skill of Gere's work—we get a sense of how Irving could not only come to identify with his fictional Hughes so thoroughly that he sometimes believed he was Hughes, but also how he was able to convince other people of the ruse: His imagination was like flypaper, his conviction virtually bulletproof.
Though dominated by this high-wire deception, the movie also depicts Irving's messy domestic life. In fact, it shows him admirably endeavoring to build a solid marriage with his Swiss-German artist wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) and only falling once for the wiles of his reputed mistress, Eurotrash baroness Nina Van Pallandt (Julie Delpy). (Van Pallandt's notoriety in the Irving affair later allowed the would-be actress to begin a movie career that, ironically, included appearing alongside Gere in American Gigolo.)
Something in me suspects that this trying-to-do-the-right-thing Irving may owe less to reality than to the filmmaker's desire to make their protagonist a lovable rogue of a very familiar movie type. But when it comes to stretching the truth for the sake of entertainment value, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
The film's press notes perhaps should be credited for their candor in 'fessing up to how much of The Hoax is sheer fabulation. Among the things they reveal: Irving is shown crucially moving toward his deception while attending Truman Capote's Black & White Ball. But the ball happened years before (in 1966) and Irving wasn't there. Irving is depicted as living in upstate New York; he really lived in Ibiza and did most of his scamming by phone. At one point, Irving and Susskind fake having Hughes' helicopter approach McGraw-Hill's headquarters; at another, Irving recounts being hijacked by Hughes agents and thrown out of a building into a swimming pool. Neither episode actually happened—and these are just a few items on a much longer list.
Why rely so much on baseless fabrication? The filmmakers might well rationalize their decision by saying that the movie attempts to duplicate Irving's own strange weave of reality and fantasy. But that explanation strikes me as a lot less plausible than another: The Hoax's producers hired a hot young Hollywood writer named William Wheeler, and he did what many of his breed do these days. He whipped up a screenplay that's all about piling one highly charged, gee-whiz scene on top of another, with little regard for dramatic sense or thematic significance.
The result is a film that does lots of shouting but has nothing to say, no point of view, no authorial acuity. Hallström's a very talented director of actors, not a real artist. All he can do is put his excellent cast through its paces, which of course is enjoyable enough in itself. But he has no take on the material; he's just a hired gun.
The shame of this is that The Hoax wastes a premise that might have yielded much richer rewards. Arguably, Irving was something of an artist in the wild extent of his con job, and the degree of his near-success says something about a country so ready to trade reality for fantasy that it would elect a second-rate movie actor president in 1980.
But when, late in its story, the film tries to convince us that Richard Nixon's paranoia over Hughes' inclination to disclose their past shady dealings prompted the Watergate break-in—well, it's hard not to roll one's eyes. It may be true, it may be a newly revealed and important part of our political history. But by this time the film has long since shown us that it's not interested in the truth of history, only in its potential for superficial affect.