Painless while viewing and fruitless upon reflection, Lasse Hallstrom‘s latest addition to his own wing in the Miramax mausoleum – where art film goes to die – is a wholly predictable product: a true-life story that eschews truth and banalizes life. “The Hoax” is based on one of the most fascinating scams of the 20th century. In 1971, author Clifford Irving pitched his publisher, McGraw-Hill, a fascinating proposal: an autobiography of America’s most famous recluse, Howard Hughes, authorized by the tycoon himself. Truth was, Irving had never met the tycoon, but had concocted an elaborate smoke-and-mirrors ruse to hoodwink his publisher and the world.
A movie about a put-on, “The Hoax” is appropriately, if unintentionally, shallow. The perpetually posturing Richard Gere is well-cast as the smooth-talking Irving. The movie shows Irving’s deception as a high-stakes high-wire act. On those terms, “The Hoax” actually conveys something of the exhilaration of Irving’s scam, depicted as a sustained performance in front of an audience of willing dupes – a multitude that includes his loyal wife (Marcia Gay Harden) and a complicit friend (Alfred Molina). With its central dynamic of a slick mountebank and a crowd willing to be fooled, “The Hoax” suggests a subtext that the ham-handed Hallstrom can’t begin to wrap his mind around. Its idea of political critique and historical representation is positively Gump-esque, manifested in clumsy stock footage of the period’s upheavals and a ludicrous tie-in to Nixon and Watergate that wasn’t even in Irving’s account of his own story.
No wonder the real Irving has declared the movie, based on a reading of the script, “basically fiction…a hoax about a hoax.” Like its protagonist, “The Hoax” has no compunction about playing fast and loose with the facts. Even those with no familiarity with the details of the real story can sniff out the contrivances of a banal filmmaker. (To wit, see the exasperating sequence involving Irving’s theft of a manuscript from a Hughes associate, presented here as a farcical heist by bumbling amateurs.) Worse is the unraveling of Irving’s plan, a descent Hallstrom unimaginatively paints with Dutch angles and expressionistic lighting-paranoia by numbers.
The ineptitude is a shame, because the story itself offers promising raw material for a fascinating inquiry into truth, fakery, and our capacity to be gulled. Thankfully, that movie already exists: Orson Welles‘s “F for Fake.” Welles’s must-see cine-essay about Irving, an art forger named Elmyr (himself the subject of a book by Irving), and the sham of expertise is “The Lady from Shanghai“‘s literal hall of mirrors made figurative. “The Hoax,” by contrast, operates on just one level. Hallstrom and Gere may think that their movie delves into grander truths, but they’re only lying to themselves.
[Elbert Ventura is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]