The Reeler


April 6, 2007

The Hoax

Hallström calls half-hearted bullshit on Gere's literary hoaxster

"My Cornell professor likened me to Hemingway,” Clifford Irving rails at the outset of The Hoax, Lasse Hallström's busy-bodied, ponderous film about a publishing boner pulled at the expense of Howard Hughes in the early 1970s. Irving (as played with beady-eyed relish by Richard Gere), is indignant about the sorry state of his writing career, and the statement neatly pierces the bloated underbelly of early encouragement: it seems to have bred a society that has not only forgotten how to take a compliment, but uses them as grist, to feed the collectively creeping certainty that we are all at least entitled to -- maybe even destined for -- cultural glory.

The thematic grit of The Hoax lends itself to comparison with last year’s fake writer explosion (you know some blowhole likened James Frey to Hemingway, at a formative age), along with the wash 'n wear celebrity cycle that is poised to spin right out of control, and yet the story posits itself as specifically a product of its time. Hallström has some fun with the New York publishing world as it entered the era of corporate conglomerates, but he also traces its dollar-happy nexus down to Washington, where Dick Nixon's paranoia was reigning supreme. Howard Hughes functions as both a palate cleanser -- I don’t know about you, but I find reclusive billionaires very refreshing -- and patron saint of outsized, American ambition.

And so our pocket Hemingway, having had his latest opus turfed by Andrea Tate, his editor at McGraw-Hill (Hope Davis), decides to take the short cut to writing "the biggest book of the 20th century" (no one said greatest, and no one cares), and fake it 'til he makes it. Irving settles on Hughes as the perfect subject because he's almost completely inaccessible, and people can’t seem to get enough of him. Enlisting his friend and fellow writer Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), and with the support of wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden, doing a loopy Swedish accent), he storms McGraw-Hill with a bullshitting grin and forged letter from Hughes, asking Irving to help him write his autobiography. Tate and her boss (played by Stanley Tucci) do a nice job containing their "don’t ask, don’t tell" skepticism about the hefty contract they hand out, and the two men scheme to pull the whole thing off as though it were a kind of hack uprising.

Returning from a trip to Vegas in which they filch a tell-all manuscript from a former Hughes insider (Eli Wallach), the duo perfect their tag-team fibbing with an ease that alarms them. Julie Delpy makes an appearance as Irving's former lover, useful mainly to indicate that he is practiced at the art of deception, and for her to align herself with Team Vapidity by mewing, “I’m shallow; my greatest desire is to be a movie star.” As the scam deepens, it becomes apparent that Irving’s method approach to channeling his subject is morphing into a desire to become one with the former movie mogul. Plastering back his wavy pompadour and penciling in a moustache, Irving's recorded interview sessions as Hughes prove dismayingly successful, even therapeutic, in generating material for the book.

This is where the film the film starts to bottleneck, slowing the final drop of the penny with various breakdowns between the principal characters, and Irving’s descent into what may or may not be dementia. The truly interesting detail about Hughes making contact with Irving to serve ulterior motives of his own gets clogged up in the psychodramatic detour. The neatest tricks in the film are visual meditations on the act of telling a lie, the marshaling of things that actually happened into service of something that definitely didn’t; a lie as a kind of reality pastiche. Irving’s pseudo-confession also has a great reveal, a swinging right hook of a camera move on a man who seems determined to dodge any semblance of the truth.

What drives Irving to these lengths is initially suggested to be financial desperation (though the actual Irving, still alive today, had a four-book deal at the time, and was living it up in Ibiza) and professional exhaustion; he’s Hemingway, dammit, and he’s ready for his Pulitzer. But as The Hoax grinds on, Hallström’s determination to keep Irving likable makes it seem more likely that the guy can’t help it: he’s just a pathological squirrel, trying to get a nut. In a late, awful scene with his wife, Irving can’t tell the truth even when he tries; anyone who has known this type of fabulist will recoil with recognition. The idea of what is and isn’t plausible gets a lot of chiding play in The Hoax, and it’s one that could have used more consideration in the formulation of its swell-talking centerpiece.

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