3 stars (out of four)
How did con artist/writer Clifford Irving, a man with posh tastes and a gift of gab who hung out in Ibiza and had never even met Howard Hughes, think he could get away with pretending he was the official go-between for the weirdo billionaire's "memoirs," a manuscript that Irving had written himself?
That's what I kept wondering all the way though "The Hoax," director Lasse Hallstrom's fairly engrossing dramatic movie about the 1971 Hughes phony autobiography scam--and it's a flaw in a pretty good picture that it never quite answers that question. The movie, directed with a high polish by Hallstrom and starring Richard Gere as Irving, isn't all it could have been. But the filmmakers catch the right glittery look and paranoid intensity, and they make gutsy speculations about the story beneath the story.
The swindle that Irving almost pulled off--persuading a major publishing house (McGraw-Hill) that he'd interviewed the unreachable Hughes and gotten his first-person memoirs and then wangling a $1 million advance from them--is a piece of brazen grifting that still seems unbelievable. Was Irving high? Over-cocky? Too convinced that the notoriously reclusive Hughes, incommunicado for years, would never speak out in public, even to disclaim a book falsely listing himself as the author?
Hughes was one of the most powerful (and craziest) men on the planet, so influential that, this movie speculates, Richard Nixon stumbled into Watergate out of fear of him. Yet Irving, armed mostly with chutzpah and a quick tongue, bet the house on Hughes keeping mum. Apparently the con artist--whose best known book heretofore had been "Fake!" a portrait of art forger Elmyr de Hory--thought he and his more timid confederate, Richard Suskind (Alfred Molina), could really get away with faking the book and pocketing the check, cashed by Irving's wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden). In fact, they almost did, duping experts right and left up to the end.
The sheer craziness of the scheme increases the story's paranoia factor. So does the look (shot by Oliver Stapleton) --glossy and slick, a noir in high but murky places.
So do the performances--by Harden, by Hope Davis and Stanley Tucci as the McGraw-Hill nabobs (she's sympathetic, he's a bully), by Julie Delpy as Irving's mistress Nina Van Pallandt and by the indestructibly cheerful Eli Wallach as longtime Hughes right-hand Noah Dietrich, whose unpublished manuscript on Hughes is cleverly pilfered and pillaged by Irving for his book.
Best of all are Gere and Molina as a classic slickster and stooge, a Martin and Lewis of literary bushwa. Gere's charm gets double-edged in this kind of part; as in "American Gigolo," he radiates casual menace or reckless unconcern. And Gere deftly conveys how Irving, when challenged or trapped, keeps upping the ante, trying to bluff his way out. His verbal cunning and fox-like smile make it work. Molina, on the other hand, plays Suskind as a gifted weakling infatuated with Irving's raw nerve and panache, who goes along, too long, for the ride. It's a perfect schnook role, played impeccably.
One of the many stretchers writer William Wheeler puts in the script is the suggestion that the Watergate break-in was the result of Nixon's knowledge of Irving's book and his fear that it would spill the beans about his ties to Hughes. It's unproven, but it plays well. And I can buy it. That of course, was Irving's rationale as he kept doubling stakes on this scam: It plays well. That con man's anthem is the heart and soul of "The Hoax."
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom; screenplay by William Wheeler, based on Clifford Irving's book "The Hoax"; photographed by Oliver Stapleton; edited by Andrew Monds hein; music by Carter Burwell; production design by Mark Ricker; produced by Mark Gordon, Leslie Holleran. A Miramax Films/Bob Yari Productions release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:56. MPAA rating: R (for language).
Clifford Irving - Richard Gere
Dick Suskind - Alfred Molina
Edith Irving - Marcia Gay Harden
Andrea Tate - Hope Davis
Nina Van Pallandt - Julie Delpy
Noah Dietrich - Eli Wallach
Shelton Fisher - Stanley Tucci