The tagline for The Hoax reads, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story."
The film, based on possibly the greatest literary hoax of all time, is indeed a good story—with stellar acting, sharp directing and intelligent intrigue. But, it leaves viewers with a nagging suspicion that the movie's tagline may have also been an unintended mission statement.
The hoax in The Hoax is the infamous 1970s ruse by author Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) who claimed he'd gotten permission to write the first authorized autobiography for recluse millionaire Howard Hughes. After Irving produced letters authenticated to be from Hughes, publisher McGraw-Hill agreed to pay nearly $1 million for the book. Months later, the book went to print—despite protests from Hughes' lawyer that it was a fake. As evidence mounted, Irving eventually admitted it was all a lie. He'd never met Hughes. His entire book, which never reached bookstores, was taken from old interviews, stolen manuscripts, private Time-Life files, and Irving's imagination.
How'd this all happen? The film's Irving is a struggling author who sees a lucrative fiction deal with McGraw-Hill fall apart and is left in debt and despair. In a fit of frustration, he tries to save face at McGraw-Hill by blurting out that he has the "greatest book of the century"—without any clue what that means. Irving then stumbles onto the perfect scheme: Pretending to be the writer of the memoirs of a famous man no one has contact with. (Rumors of the day had it that Hughes was dying, insane or already dead.) Irving figures that he can't be discredited if Hughes doesn't come out of self-imposed exile to refute it. With the help of his friend Dick Susskins (Alfred Molina), Irving goes to work at manufacturing interview tapes and conning everyone from book publishers to journalists to the Swiss government.
From the early origins of his scheme to the growing mess his lies create, it's clear that Irving's motivation is power and public recognition. Early in The Hoax, Irving stays at a Hughes-owned hotel that's closed and emptied in the middle of the night because its owner wants to stay there. Irving muses, "Now, that's power!" It's clear that's what he wants. And Hughes is who he wants to be. Soon, Irving discovers that his lies give him power over others—but only lead to more lies and more hunger for power. Seeking the power and fame of Hughes, Irving also starts taking on his paranoia, madness and reclusive weirdness. He becomes darker and darker, madder and madder. Irving stoops to sickening lows to protect his lies and hold onto power. We see the dark, exhaustive cost of chasing power by any means. We see power corrupt.
This is a powerful theme (excuse the pun). And Irving's continuingly crafty cons and spiral of madness are fascinating to watch—making the film a mix of Catch Me If You Can, Shattered Glass, and A Beautiful Mind. But unlike the characters from those better films, there's nothing redeeming about Irving. I enjoy "spiral into madness" movies, but this one can feel unsettling and smarmy because it's not a good man spiraling out of control until he realizes what he's done. Instead, you're merely watching a bad man get worse—with no eventual lesson learned or expression of contrition.
According to interviews with Irving, the film actually makes him more sympathetic. He actually had no money problems that forced him into his hoax—he just wanted to see if he could make the score. So watching this man on screen just feels icky. Especially when it's suggested that good came from his hoax, that perhaps his fake biography played a significantly positive role in American politics. In fact, the film could be seen to suggest that maybe Irving is a hero—not only because of the political role the book may have played, but because he also almost pulled off the most incredible scam ever. Some in this Punk'd age may revere Irving for his cunningness and chutzpah.
What compounds this moral ambiguity is the nagging feeling that all of this is spun truth. What's important to know is that The Hoax is partly based on a book written by Clifford Irving. That's right: It's a movie about one of the greatest lies ever—with "facts" coming from a notorious liar. That's not a very credible source. Many "based on true life" films are fictionalized, but when the entire film is about truth and lies, it feels strange to walk out with such a fuzzy grasp of the true history. This would be fine if we were just fuzzy about matters of location or who said what. But it's more troubling when the film implies that Irving's hoax changed the course of a certain president's legacy. Really?
I saw the movie on April 1. So when that revelation popped up, I couldn't help but think, "Am I being taken for a ride here? Is this an April Fool's joke?" But some research indicates that the implication may be true. (For more info on that, click here, but be warned: The article includes some spoilers.) Still, in the context of the film itself, it's confusing. In fact, the movie sends mixed messages—one minute suggesting it's all in Irving's head, but then ending with an epilogue claiming, "White House aides confirmed that the book" had historically-huge D.C. ramifications.
On the surface, The Hoax has a lot going for it. Gere is at his best in years. Molina steals the film in possibly one of 2007's strongest supporting roles. Three-time Oscar nominated director Lasse Hallström (Cider House Rules) proves once again to be well schooled at crafting gripping films. There's humor, tension, twists and a great '70s feel. (It does, however, feel uneven and sputters to an end 10 minutes too late.) I left the film with a very positive view, wanting to give it three stars. But the more I've thought about The Hoax, the more I scratch my head about its messages and meaning.
I mean, it's a good story. But then there's that tricky truth thing.Discussion starters
- The real Clifford Irving told The Village Voice: "The character that [Gere] plays is not me … that guy is desperate. [The true story] wasn't about a guy who was broke, desperate and washed-up. It was the story of a guy who was quite successful … It's harder to grasp why someone like that [would do this]. … I'm always asked why I did what I did and I never have a good answer, [but] I was living in a community of anything goes. It wasn't the real world. That was a very important part of what happened … There was always a sense that, 'We're only pulling a hoax. We can always say, 'Hey guys, why don't you just publish it as a novel?'" What do Irving's comments here mean to you? Does it change your impression of Irving? Why is it more understandable why the film's Irving did what he did—or is it? If The Hoax had stuck with this motivation, would it have been better? Worse?
- It can be common today to hear someone excuse actions by saying, "Hey, but it was just a joke." Is that an appropriate excuse for someone's actions? Can something be excused because it was meant as an innocent joke/hoax/prank? Where is the line drawn?
- The New York Observer implied in a review of the film that Irving's hoax was really no different than Orson Welles' War of the Worldsradio broadcast. Andrew Sarris wrote, "The difference was that Welles didn't do prison time for his deception; Irving did." Is that the only difference? Welles is legendary for his hoax. Irving is infamous. Why do think that's so? When is a hoax more than just a joke?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Hoax is rated R for language. The movie deserves its R rating for the full gamut of profanities. But what's not noted by the MPAA is a scene of female nudity, scenes of implied adultery, and sexual discussions including several references to sodomy.
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