Directed by Lasse Hallstrí¶m. Starring Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, and Marcia Gay Harden. Rated PG. Opens Friday, April 6, at the Cinemark Tinseltown
For some reason, Hollywood has recently taken a shine to the minor scandals of the early 1970s. The studios have already gotten on the case of Zodiac, the overhyped California serial killer whose depredations have been overshadowed by the crimes of more ambitious psychopaths. And now we have The Hoax, the tale of Clifford Irving's fraudulent biography of Howard Hughes, the reclusive billionaire who has long since faded from the frontal lobes of popular culture's notoriously short attention span (despite Martin Scorsese's handsomely mounted 2004 biopic, The Aviator).
For those who have forgotten this tempest in an inkwell, Irving (played here by a heavily marcelled Richard Gere) was a minor novelist who sought to stave off bankruptcy by claiming to have access to the most famous recluse in the world. By a variety of ingenious ruses (forged handwriting, no-shows that made perfect sense in light of the interview subject's innumerable personal phobias), this talented huckster was able to convince an important publisher and a raft of Hughes experts that he really was authorized to pull off a coup that popular wisdom deemed impossible.
For a time, it looked as if this extraordinarily clever scam might actually succeed; but then, inevitably, the threads of the plot began to unravel.
Director Lasse Hallstrí¶m and writer William Wheeler are clearly on the side of these literary conspirators (the cabal consisting of, besides Irving, his wife, Edith, and best friend and literary collaborator Dick Susskind), and the launching of this fraud unfolds in a manner pretty much indistinguishable from the sale of a blockbuster script. To keep things interesting, it is strongly implied that one well-researched chapter led directly to the Watergate burglary and, indirectly, to the fall of then-president Richard M. Nixon (thereby turning the characters into the strategic equals and tactical superiors of Woodward and Bernstein).
There's more "spine" to the plot than you usually find in a Hallstrí¶m flick, and the acting, though not exceptional, is still slightly above average. When the accidental crusading elements are removed, what remains is a heist picture, a heist that never really came off (except, perhaps, on-screen).
The Hoax is anything but an embarrassment. On the other hand, it's no more "must see" than Clifford Irving's books are "must read".