Hoax spelled backwards is xoaH

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STUDIO: Miramax
MSRP: $19.99
Stranger than Fiction making of featurette.
• Mike Wallace: Reflections on a Con
• Deleted Scenes w/Commentary by Lasse Hallstrom & William Wheeler
• Extended Scene Business is Pleasure
• Feature Commentary w/Hallstrom & Wheeler
• Feature Commentary w/producers Leslie Holleran & Johua D. Maurer

The Pitch

A writer lies about co-writing an autobiography about a man he’s never met and people buy it.

The Humans

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Featuring Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Stanley Tucci, Julie Delpy, Eli Wallach. Written by William Wheeler, based on the book by Clifford Irving.

The Nutshell

A failed writer attracted to a rich lifestyle, Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) is desperate to sell a book. Inspired by news reports on the fascinating lifestyle of rich, reclusive mogul Howard Hughes, Irving comes up with a risky idea. He’ll pitch himself as Hugh’s biographer (selling the idea that he’s in communication with Hughes and has exclusive interviews with the man) to New York publishing firm McGraw-Hill, who won’t be able to resist having the exclusive rights to one of the most famous and interesting American’s life stories. Irving and his loyal partner Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) quickly get to work at making their con as realistic as possible.  But how long can they keep the lies going, and what will McGraw-Hill do when they find out the book they’ve paid Irving and Suskind millions to research and write is nothing but a giant sham?  Even more frightening, what will the paranoid and private Hughes do once he finds out about the sham?

Ho's Up!
In this deleted scene from Pretty Women, Gere’s character is a little less suave when first geting Julia Roberts’ attention.

The Lowdown

If you’re expecting anything close to a historically accurate procedural drama from The Hoax, detailing exactly how Clifford Irving conned a NY publishing house into paying him for the exclusive rights to his biography on Howard Hughes, you’re bound to be disappointed.  Unlike the meticulously researched and vividly realistic Zodiac, also released earlier this year, The Hoax glorifies its lies, revels in its fabrications. This is fitting for a movie about a man driven to great lengths to bring life to a lie, and the film wisely sidesteps the less interesting reality about the whole proceedings to create as much of a thoughtful, entertaining caper as possible. (Ironically enough, Irving recently complained that the film suffered from too many half-truths, mostly due to the lack of his own involvement. Pot, kettle, black anyone?) The truth is that the reality of the whole ordeal wasn’t that interesting. Irving mostly communicated his con via telephone and barely made any visits to McGraw-Hill headquarters. He never felt like his life was in danger from the powerful Hughes and his creepy hired goons. He didn’t pull elaborate stunts to make it look like Hughes was arriving at McGraw-Hill via helicopter only to abandon his plan at the last second because every single detail wasn’t exactly as he specified.

But that’s okay, because I want to be entertained by a movie like The Hoax, not bludgeoned to death by boring details. Critics of the film can moan that it isn’t realistic enough. They’re missing the point. Irving did go through with this con, the book was written and many copies were produced (many people have gone on record citing it as an excellent biography), and despite the fact that this plan was doomed to fail, Irving lied his ass off and made the most out of what little he had. Betting on a (mostly correct) assumption that Hughes was a complete shut-in and communicated with virtually no one in his vast empire, Irving refuted the denials from powerful people within Hughes international by stating that Howard probably didn’t tell them about the book in the first place. He worked so hard on making the book authentic that professional handwriting expects confirmed it’s validity, as did Frank McCulloch, the last known journalist to interview Hughes. The important elements of the story are all there. What’s added only help dramatize the story and make a bigger connection about a really sinister subject; national manipulation.

The World of Tomorrow is nothing but giant Richard Gere
Reviews were not kind to the Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow sequel, Sky Captain vs. giant smiling Richard Gere.

What elevates The Hoax past typical con and caper flicks is its unique point of view concerning liars and the weak minded people they lie to. Most films of this nature glorify their subjects, making them come off as cold, manipulative and unlikable while simultaneously winking at the audience, trying to get us “in on the con.” We’re never really meant to like Irving here; the film paints him rather unflatteringly as kind of a jerk, a bad friend and a worse husband. But Gere does such a fantastic job selling the character (in what I consider, no hyperbole, the performance of his career and one of the best of the year) that I couldn’t help but like the guy and root for his success. And towards the end of the movie, we understand that he’s just a pawn in a nation full of liars, from the President (Nixon) to Hughes himself, who uses Irving and his fake book as a political move to get the government off his back.

Some bicker about the film’s suggestion that the book is what eventually triggered Watergate, calling it totally unrealistic. Wow, you think? Again, this is not the point.  Screenwriter William Wheeler knows his material and understands the time period well enough to comment on how easily (and consistently) people were being manipulated. The character of Hughes is so important because despite the fact that he’s never seen on screen, we feel his paranoid, crazed and manipulative ways throughout.

Some silly joke
O Brother, Where Art Thou 2: Art Thou Brother Harder!!!

The same can be said of Irving (especially towards the end, when he even begins to talk and act like Hughes and imagines make-believe kidnappings) and Nixon, who was so paranoid he bugged everything and everyone, even his dog. Then there’s the fact that while some people question Irving, they don’t really push anything too hard. Why not? Because they want to believe. McGraw-Hill gets so excited about the potential for the money-making book, they set aside their doubt and jump into the bullshit head first. Many scenes feature Gere, excellently teetering on the edge, nervously trying to double guess how the publishing firm is going to come at him next so he can cover his ass. It’s an inspired tightrope walk, beautifully directed by Lasse Hallstrom (whom I was never a big fan of before this film). It’s this material that makes The Hoax such a relevant story. It’s critical of the liars, sure, but also of the people who get lied to and manipulated so easily. “The more outrageous I sound, the more convincing I am,” Irving tells Suskind at one point. The frightening truth is right in that line.  How easily do people buy into what they want to believe, and what are they willing to ignore to believe it?

The Package

What. A. Horrible. Cover. My god, where to begin? Okay, first of all, why is Richard Gere’s first name dispensing from the top of his head like a couple of alien antennas? Second, why is the title COVERING Gere’s mouth? If the movie shows us anything, it’s that Irving was a smooth talker, able to worm (or outsmart) his way out of almost any situation using just the right combination of words and charm. Then there’s the fact that the Gere pictured looks nothing like the one in the film with his 70’s haircut and cheesy ties. This looks like a bad cover of Entertainment Weekly! Thankfully, the extras and presentation on the disc make up for its lackluster art. I’m a little ashamed of having in this in my collection, despite the fact that it’s a great movie…just because it looks like such a bad one. I know nobody saw the movie, Miramax, but put an intern on the DVD graphic design at least, not some three-year old kid.

Dive on in!
"Help me out and you get this shoe box full of cash.  You need to provide the gerbil though, I’m all out."

Bottom line: This film would make a great double feature with Orson Welles’ F for Fake.

8.1 out of 10