The Hoax Lasse Hallström

In a media age obsessed with celebrity, overrun by paparazzi and bloggers, and in which we seem to know the intimate details of even the most pathetic c-list "stars,” the idea of faking a biography of the world’s most infamous man seems patently absurd. But that’s exactly the story told by The Hoax, based on the non-fiction book by Clifford Irving, a writer who, in 1971, sold an "autobiography” of Howard Hughes that was totally made up. Possible only because of the then lack of information technology, and the fact that Hughes was a complete recluse, Irving managed a serious publishing coup before hubris (and an attempt to cash a million dollar cheque made out to Hughes) brought him down. Rich stuff, especially in the hands of an accomplished director like Lasse Hallström (Cider House Rules, Chocolat) — resonant themes include the very concept of "biography” (after all, what’s "true” about anyone’s life?); the rise of celebrity culture; and the art of the elaborate con. Only the latter gets any play in this film, which stars Richard Gere as Irving, Alfred Molina as his researcher/sidekick, Hope Davis as his editor, Marcia Gay Harden as his Swiss wife and Julie Delpy as his mistress. Gere successfully portrays the desperation that would lead a writer to such an outrageous gambit, and he’s got some logic on his side. For details on Hughes’ life see Martin Scorsese’s amazing bio-pic The Aviator but in short, Hughes was facing some legal issues in the early ’70s that helped convince Irving that he’d be reluctant to sue. Plus, as a paranoid recluse, for Hughes to argue that a biography was fictional he would have to present refuting evidence, which he clearly didn’t want to do. Gere gives Irving the slick, slimy coating of a used car salesman, extending as far as imitating Hughes in audiotaped interviews. As the sweaty, nervous sidekick, Molina steals the movie; his performance is the only memorable one in the film. Once the set-up is underway The Hoax really starts to wobble on its tracks: details cram together like merging lanes of traffic and a couple of absurd "hallucinations” on Irving’s part stretch Hughes’s influence right up to the White House and the Watergate scandal. But for all its attempts at vigorous tension, what The Hoax never does is explore the roots of its subject. It demonstrates almost as little understanding of Clifford Irving as the author himself does of Hughes, and does little with the material. And given the fact that Irving himself has given recent interviews claiming that in fact, The Hoax is playing fast and loose with the details of his own life, it’s hard not to be sceptical of its "truth-telling” soap boxing. It’s by no means incompetent filmmaking but it reveals nothing of Hughes, little of Irving and not much about the risks and rewards of celebrity, silence or media scrutiny. Too bad — there’s a good movie to be made of this, it’s just not this one. (Alliance Atlantis)