The literary con tends to be viewed as a postmodern phenomenon. Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, James Frey and other fabricators can appear the products of an ethically lazy, celebrity-obsessed age but the fact is writers in this country have been propagating whoppers as long as the country’s existed. As a recent issue of the New Yorker reminded readers, claims made by Jamestown founder Captain John Smith in his various memoirs have long been regarded as little more than elaborately boastful fibs by historians. And, as director Lasse Hallstrom reminds us in his new film, the biggest literary con in history took place nearly four decades ago.
“The Hoax” is the story of master scam artist Clifford Irving. How smooth an operator is this guy? He not only wrote the bogus Howard Hughes memoir that is the subject of the film, he also penned the post-prison account on which it’s based. Richard Gere, giving one of the liveliest performances of his career, plays him as equal parts social climber and sociopath.
From the movie’s earliest moments Irving’s desperation is palpable. He is a writer whose opinion of his writing has always been higher than that of the publishing executives who control his fate. A book about a forger of great paintings did not sell well. A new work of fiction (Rudnick’s Problem) is about to be picked up by McGraw-Hill when editors recognize it as a rip off of Portnoy’s “Complaint.” He has reached middle age without reaching any of his dreams, repo men are lugging pricey pieces of furniture out of his house and something inside him snaps.
Bursting unannounced into a meeting his editor (Hope Davis) is in the middle of one day, he blurts an empty claim. He’s about to write the most important book of the 20th century and, sport that he is, Irving is willing to give McGraw-Hill first dibs on it. In a few days. Once he’s figured out what it’s going to be about.
Alfred Molina costars as Irving’s researcher, co-writer and all around sidekick Dick Suskind. He’s an affable teddy bear eager to please his more dapper, big-dreaming pal and can’t sign on fast enough when the notion of an “authorized” Hughes bio is stumbled upon. The pair gambles everything on their belief the billionaire recluse won’t come out of hiding to call their bluff and set about the business of learning to mimic his handwriting and idiosyncratic syntax. Blinded by greed, dubious company brass bite. The next thing you know Gere’s calling the shots and driving away in his Mercedes with checks in excess of $1 million.
“The Hoax” works best when it confines its focus to the battle of wits–and nerves–its subject waged with the writers of those checks. As time goes by and they begin to receive calls from the Hughes camp denying any knowledge of the project, Irving was forced to improvise an ever more elaborate web of lies and Gere does a splendid job of suggesting the mounting panic behind the huckster’s grin.
Hallstrom and screenwriter William Wheeler fare less well when they stray into more fanciful territory. A storyline which attempts to link Irving’s antics to the Watergate break in rings borderline nutso. Similarly distracting and unnecessary are a series of late inning scenes in which an on-the-edge Irving hallucinates visits from Hughes goons a la John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind.”
Fortunately, the makers of the film don’t waste a lot of screen time on these digressions. For the most part “The Hoax” is full speed ahead fun, a rollicking caper romp that hearkens back to a quainter, pre-Ken Lay age when bigtime fraud could actually entail writing books as opposed to merely cooking them.