Toward the end of “The Hoax,” Clifford Irving’s wife tells him that he has become “exhausted by his lies.” And he should be — in the preceding two hours he’s forged signatures, committed adultery, made up elaborate stories and concocted complicated ruses. The problem with “The Hoax,” however, is that the audience becomes exhausted by his lies as well — the film chronicles one dishonest act after another but fails to offer new insight about why people lie, which should be a crucial element to a movie that announces its theme from the title sequence.
The perspective on lies is quite unoriginal: The film posits that people lie because they feel powerless and — as “Catch Me If You Can” or even “Liar, Liar” will teach — that lies will eventually catch up to you. The movie makes these points quite heavy-handedly, implying that a lot of proof is necessary to make us believe these claims. As Clifford realizes that he has failed in acquiring the power he desires, “You Can’t Always Get What You What” blares in the background. Lying has been a popular subject in movies and TV over the past five years — “Weeds,” “Big Love” and “The Departed” come readily to mind — and director Lasse Hallstrom should have been careful to have something more profound to say than that lies hurt the ones we love.
As far as the actual lying goes, however, Clifford Irving is up there with the best. The film is based on the true story of Irving — powerfully portrayed by Richard Gere — who attempted one of the largest hoaxes in American history. After his second novel is painfully rejected by his publishers, Irving feels powerless and unimportant, reminiscing about when his college professor compared him to Hemingway.
Irving is then drawn to Howard Hughes, the most powerful (and mysterious) man in America, after reading an article about him. Exploiting Hughes’ reclusiveness, Irving forges a letter from Hughes granting Irving an unprecedented interview to co-write Hughes’ hotly anticipated autobiography. As could be expected, the lies escalate, and Irving’s wife (an accented Marcia Gay Harden) and best friend (Doc Ock himself, Alfred Molina) come into the line of fire. As Irving learns more and more about the power of Hughes, he begins to take on his identity, leading to the film’s most powerful scenes — those that blur the line of Irving’s reality and his obsession with Hughes.
The film cleverly announces at the beginning that it intends to paint “a positive portrayal of a complex man,” and it succeeds thanks to Gere’s stunning performance. Viewers of “Shall We Dance?” will be relieved to see the true actor behind the awkward tango. Gere makes a terrible person likable and his complicated motivations sympathetic. As Gere takes on Irving’s taking on Hughes’ mannerisms and speech, the audience will wish he would star in a sequel to “The Aviator.”
What makes Gere even more impressive is how unfettered he is by Molina’s embarrassing performance as his sidekick. Molina’s character is written as a likeable doofus — a malleable guy with good intentions but a bad, manipulative friend — but comes off as unbelievable and annoying. His climatic scene, when he realizes that he cheated on his wife while drunk, elicited chuckles from the audience. Gere shows how skillfully he can work off competent actors as well, in scenes with his wife and Stanley Tucci, who plays a honcho at his publishing house.
Viewers’ most burning question after seeing “The Hoax” will be what was true and what was made up — after all, the film ends up implying that Irving is to thank (or blame) for Watergate and that Howard Hughes was a manipulative power-monger who removed presidents at his will.
A thorough IMDb and Wikipedia search does little to clarify the confusion. Irving himself claims that, even though the film is based off his book, the only accurate plot elements are the basic idea of the hoax itself and what happened to him after his lie was exposed. It is general consensus, as well, that Irving was more successful and rich than the movie portrays him, which belies one of the character’s principal motivations.
For a movie about the dangers of lying, one would like to assume the writers would practice what they preach.