- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

“The Hoax’s” tag line is telling: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

At first glance, it resembles the imagined mantra of Clifford Irving, the film’s protagonist and the man who had a nation believing in the early ‘70s that he had obtained Howard Hughes’ exclusive memoirs. (He hadn’t.)

After comparing the film’s depiction with the actual events, though, the one-line teaser takes on another meaning. Some scenes have been created out of thin air, and others have been embellished. Mr. Irving’s real-life children are nonexistent, and the setting has been changed from where he actually lived (Ibiza, Spain) to a location that would facilitate more on-screen interaction with other characters (New York state).

It seems the filmmakers — including director Lasse Hallstrom (“Cider House Rules,” “Chocolat”) and screenwriter William Wheeler — weren’t going to let all the facts of Mr. Irving’s outrageous tale interfere with the making of their motion picture.

Fortunately for audiences, “The Hoax” delivers a well-acted and fascinating, if slightly fabricated, final product that will have viewers marveling at the lengths to which Mr. Irving (both original and 2.0 versions) went to pull off this con and how the heck he got away with it so long.

Though the film offers theories about Mr. Irving’s motivations (and possible impact on President Nixon and Watergate), its message ultimately seems more universal; at its core, “The Hoax” is about how one man’s quest for notoriety, the public’s thirst for celebrities’ inner secrets, and human willingness to trust can cause a little white lie to spark an all-consuming white-hot wildfire.

When Irving (a permed Richard Gere) lights the match, he’s down on his luck; McGraw Hill has just rejected his latest manuscript. (In reality, he had a four-book deal, which makes him much less sympathetic.)

Desperate to stay relevant and gainfully employed, he concocts a pitch the publisher can’t refuse: Howard Hughes’ biography, based on “exclusive interviews” he has conducted with the reclusive tycoon. Everything hinges on the writer’s belief that Mr. Hughes is too detached and delusional to come forward and reject the book’s validity.

Publishing executives wonder why the billionaire would choose a lesser-known writer for the project and express other doubts, yet Irving continues to produce “handwritten letters from Mr. Hughes” and other “evidence” that he’s the real deal.

Soon the lie is a massive, nearly million-dollar beast being fed by McGraw-Hill employees, the media, Irving and the author’s team of co-conspirators: his wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), and friend and fellow writer Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina). At one point, even Mr. Hughes himself appears to be in on it, in an attempt to put the squeeze on President Nixon.

By the time Irving produces his long-awaited manuscript, he has stolen Pentagon files and the memoirs of a former Hughes employee, sent Mr. Suskind to the Bahamas just to postmark a letter, starred as Mr. Hughes in “taped interviews” and committed a dozen other dazzlingly unbelievable acts — all of which sound much more dramatic than the true-life story but make for a jazzier flick.

It’s riveting to watch Irving’s precarious position, his increasingly illegal actions and the way he tirelessly eludes the powers that be. Even if what the writer is doing is wrong (he also cheats on his wife), it takes impressive skill to keep up the ruse, and Mr. Gere’s gentle demeanor and nuanced portrayal make it easier to root for the character — to a point. As the production notes say, “You can understand him, even if you can’t trust him.”

Similarly, audiences can see why the crew of “The Hoax” made a wilder ride out of an already gripping real-life story — even if they may not be able to reconcile it with their memories of how it actually went down.


TITLE: “The Hoax”

RATING: R (Some nudity, language, mature themes)

CREDITS: Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Written by William Wheeler, based on Clifford Irving’s autobiographical account.

RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes

WEB SITE: www.thehoax movie.net


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