Title: The Hoax
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: Lasse Hallström
Screenwriters: William Wheeler
Starring: Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, David Aaron Baker
For all that Lasse Hallström has become known as king of anonymous middlebrow pseudo-arthouse fare, I think that he leaves a semblance of an auteurial stamp on The Hoax. The rhythm and pacing, if not immediately identifiable with Hallström’s back catalogue (though they certainly fit his ouvre), at least suggest a distinctive plan of action: punchy and quick even as it begins to stake out darker territory, the film hurtles forward, overloaded with twists and complications that it seems determined to bowl over, with nary a moment to breathe or contemplate. With a less busy screenplay, the tone could have been aptly described as lighthearted, but here a better adjective would be “furious,” or perhaps “on steroids.” Say what you will about Hallström, but The Hoax isn’t the sort of boring and nondescript production some would associate with him.
On the other hand, while I tend to find ambitious failures far preferable to bland and inoffensive mediocrities, could be that he would have fared better by hewing closer to his image in the eyes of his detractors. The Hoax is deeply problematic in large part because of Hallström’s monomaniacal determination to turn Clifford Irving’s story into a lively romp. He accelerates to such a speed that when it comes time to hit the brakes — when the film purports to take Irving (Richard Gere), his wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), and his partner-in-crime Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) to some dark places — he finds that his vessel has careened out of control. Major crises whizz by in a flash, and if you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of them crashing against the brick wall just off screen. Characters weep over things the film seems to have no time for. The writing isn’t sharp enough to make the pathos credible at this pace.
There’s a more fundamental problem, too: the movie is all too eager to consign Irving to the loony bin rather than attempt to deal with him on his own terms. As Irving’s hoax — a desperately improvised, completely fabricated “autobiography” of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes that sets off a publisher free-for-all and a media frenzy — begins to collapse around him, the film gives him visions, paranoid hallucinations, delusions of grandeur. The easiest way to avoid thorny, difficult character issues is to make your character crazy, and the screenplay sadly goes this route, sending Irving off the deep end instead (for the most part) of having him reap what he’s sown in a compelling way. Compare Shattered Glass, which made its protagonist face the consequences of a similar transgression — it wasn’t pleasant, but it was genuine, and pulled fewer punches.
The mechanics of the hoax are actually quite a bit of fun, in a purely procedural way, though lacking the pure joy of Catch Me if You Can and the moral heft of Shattered Glass. The first hour is played for laughs, with even some physical comedy thrown into the mix; Gere is surprisingly game for this, giving his liveliest performance in years and sounding oddly like George Costanza. Alfred Molina is fun in a buffoonish role; Stanley Tucci shows up briefly, but elevates every moment he’s on screen. And while the tone remains light, Hallström is dead on, his work snappy and even elegant.
The last act tries to add layers. There’s a revelation about the relationship between Irving and Suskind that’s at best a neat screenwriter’s trick — Irving channels Hughes, but really just himself! It’s a web of lies! — and at worst a hideous contrivance. The film suggests the potential for cons within cons, and then uses Irving’s nascent madness to create ambiguity. And all of it zips by at the speed of a jolly, bouncy locomotive. The Hoax is most interesting when exploring the nitty gritty of the con itself, though its best suggestions (that confidence can make for an inverse plausibility-believability relationship, for example) mostly go unprobed. Once Irving’s jig is up, so is the film’s.