Big Lies, Little Truth

Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) and his mistress, Nina Van Pallandt (Julie Delpy), in
Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) and his mistress, Nina Van Pallandt (Julie Delpy), in "The Hoax." (By Ken Regan -- Miramax Films)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2007

"The Hoax" takes us back to a time when lying was just lying -- not some cry for help, or need for pop cultural affirmation, or whatever the psychological explanation du jour. Based on the true story of Clifford Irving, whose "authorized autobiography" of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes in the early 1970s was exposed as a fake, the movie's a refreshing palate cleanser -- at least when it comes to the motivation of the fabricator.

As the movie tells it, Irving -- played with dutiful precision by Richard Gere -- was an opportunist, an adulterer and a scoundrel, with mounting bills and the ill-advised chutzpah to fool McGraw-Hill into giving him a million dollars for an empty promise. He falsified a book about Hughes because . . . he needed the money! How wonderfully quaint! Yes, he also wanted the acclaim as a writer he felt he had been denied. But in "The Hoax," his desire isn't wrapped up in the mitigating circumstances we use to explain (and permanently cocoon) the likes of James Frey, Jayson Blair and other purveyors of fiction as fact. It just is.

It's too bad the pristine simplicity of Irving's greed is not enough to galvanize the movie. "The Hoax," which William Wheeler adapted from Irving's own book of the same name, posits this grand deception as a whimsical lark that goes terribly wrong. At first, we're intrigued by how far Irving will take his deception, how many people he fools (including a persuasively harried Hope Davis as his book editor), and the escalation of lies he has to tell to cover his initial whoppers. And there's a frisson of excitement in knowing these events -- no matter how fictionalized they might be -- really took place.

But we never establish an emotional connection with Irving. Even though we're caught up in his derring-do as he beguiles entire meeting rooms of jaded publishers and editors (including Stanley Tucci, whose poorly styled hairpiece distracts from a good performance), we're kept at a dissatisfying distance from Irving and the movie.

The one-dimensional relationship Irving has with Dick Susskind (a pantomimically nervous Alfred Molina), his edgy pal and research partner who becomes his accomplice, reveals little about either man, just the external circumstances that bring them together. And we're similarly unenlightened by Irving's contentious marriage to Edith (a dyed-blond but not especially transformative Marcia Gay Harden). A mediocre Swiss-German artist, she's perpetually on alert for Irving's philandering, and she becomes embroiled in the later machinations of her husband's scheme. But as to why she's with him, or chooses to stay, we're clueless.

Director Lasse Hallstrom, who enjoyed critical and commercial success with "The Cider House Rules" and "Chocolat," has foundered more recently with the wanly drawn "The Shipping News," "An Unfinished Life" and "Casanova." A directorial heavy-handedness mars "The Hoax." The time period -- the story starts in late 1971 -- is denoted by the usual Vietnam War news footage and music of the time. The movie's deeper revelation -- that Hughes allowed Irving's foolhardy charade to continue for some time, as part of his power struggle with President Nixon -- may be based in truth, but it feels as contrived as the unidentified shadowy Nixonistas we see pacing the halls of the White House. And Irving's fabrications -- the false anecdotes he tells his wide-eyed editors -- are reenacted in exaggerated grainy, high-contrast film so we all understand these events Didn't Really Happen.

Clearly, Irving is meant to be an antihero, someone we don't approve of but who compels us with his unorthodox choices. For example, in 2002's "Catch Me if You Can," an account of real-life teenage con artist Frank Abagnale Jr., we're rooting for our antihero all the way, thanks to his boyish adventurousness and Leonardo DiCaprio's impish appeal. But we're never allowed access to Irving, thanks to a movie that shows an abstract process, Irving's convoluted scam, rather than the moral evolution of the man behind it. We're not watching the insightful account of one man's pattern of deception. We're just waiting for his comeuppance.

The Hoax (116 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity and brief nudity.

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