Judge Brendan Babish decided not to watch The Hoax and then write about it anyway.
Meet Clifford Irving. Mover. Shaker. Faker.
Despite generally positive reviews, The Hoax went largely unnoticed during its theatrical run. However, an extras-laden DVD may help the film attract an audience in home theaters.
Facts of the Case
While The Hoax is a based on true incidents that occurred in the early 1970s, it does contain some speculation that can not be verified. The true part is the movie's depiction of failed novelist Clifford Irving's (Richard Gere, Chicago) attempt to sell an authorized autobiography of famed reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes—an autobiography which Hughes has no participation in and no knowledge of. Surprisingly, the publishing house McGraw Hill believes Irving's story, and provides him an advance of several hundred thousand dollars. But a funny thing happens while Irving is writing the ersatz autobiography (and here is where the speculation begins): someone seems to be assisting Irving by providing scandalous details on Hughes and a top American politician. So who's behind this, and what's in it for them?
The Hoax has several things going for it. First, it's a great story. Clifford Irving's fraudulent peddling of Howard Hughes' autobiography is interesting, but what makes the whole episode so intriguing is how far his scheme actually went. The checks had been cashed (by Irving's wife, in a Swiss bank account), the books had been printed, and a lot of very smart people had been duped. And what makes it all the better is that it's all true. Secondly, The Hoax, capably directed by Lasse Hallstrom, makes the whole affair great fun. This is key to making The Hoax such a strong film.
I have seen Clifford Irving profiled in both Orson Welles' excellent film F For Fake and in a segment on 60 Minutes. He is not a likeable man. He oozes dishonestly, and attempts to hide this behind a toothsome smirk. If The Hoax had accurately portrayed Irving, the film might have been interesting for historical purposes, but it would hardly be a good time. Thankfully, Gere manages to inject an exuberance and irreverence to Irving that makes him endearing. Additionally, Irving's co-writer for the Hughes autobiography, the doughy Dick Suskind (played by the underrated Alfred Molina), provides both comic relief and a fair amount of pathos. Still, much of the credit for The Hoax's deft tone has to go to Gere.
I've never been much of a fan. For most of his career, Gere seems rarely to improve the films he's in. If a film is poor (and Gere has made a lot of stinkers) he can do little to improve them. If a film is good or great, Gere seems capable of merely not screwing up a strong script, inspired director, and otherwise solid cast. His performance as Clifford Irving is his first since Chicago that clearly improves the movie. In fact, his performance in The Hoax may be the best of his career. From the goofy hair (which is spot on) to the likeable demeanor (which is inaccurate, but a welcome use of artistic license), I have never seen him so in command of a role.
However, as strong as The Hoax is, it does take a somewhat unwelcome turn with its speculation on a nefarious subplot to the entire fake autobiography story. It is not so much that this storyline is uninteresting, but it clashes with the more irreverent tone of the rest of the movie and also steers it out of the nonfiction realm. It is not that The Hoax is only good because (much of) it is true; it is that the movie becomes even better because something this fantastic actually happened.
Though the film fared poorly at the box office, Miramax seems to believe it can find an audience on DVD, and has put together a fantastic set of special features to entice viewers. There are two featurettes ("Stranger Than Fiction" and "Mike Wallace: 'Reflections on a Con'") that showcase clips from Irving's infamous appearance on 60 Minutes. For those who have never seen Irving before, this is a fantastic bonus item. Additionally, there are almost 20 minutes of deleted/extended scenes, with optional commentary from Hallstrom and writer William Wheeler.
The disc also contains two commentary tracks, one from Hallstrom and Wheeler, the other from producers Leslie Holleran and Joshua P. Mauer. The tracks cover a bit of the same ground, with all four interested in the real facts of the case, but it is Holleran and Mauer who surprisingly seem most knowledgeable on Howard Hughes and Clifford Irving. Still, both tracks are worth a listen.
The only thing that could have improved this set is the participation of Clifford Irving himself, who is, as of this writing, alive and well. However, it seems he has taken issue with the accuracy of The Hoax, claiming certain parts of the film are false or misleading. >From what I have read, he does seem genuinely upset, but I wonder if he is able to enjoy the irony at least a little.
It's a shame that more people (admittedly, myself included) didn't see this movie at the cinema. It's smart, funny, and educational to boot. In a perfect world, this is the kind of film movie studios would crank out regularly. If you would like to encourage more engaging films like this, and fewer movies about robots that fight each other, pick yourself up a copy.
Irving's already served his time. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• "Stranger Than Fiction" Making-of Featurette
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