For its rambunctious first half, Lasse Hallström’s The Hoax is a rip-roaring yarn about irresistibly mischievous con men and the corporate stooges whose greediness drives them to eagerly take the charlatan’s bait. Playing fast and loose with the facts of its real-life tale, the film turns its breathlessly excited attention to Clifford Irving (Richard Gere), a struggling novelist who, after having his latest fictional novel rejected by Houghton Miflin, sets in motion a desperate, staggering fraud: that crazy hermetic billionaire Howard Hughes has agreed to speak with him for an exclusive memoir that Irving will pen. The beauty of the idea is that Hughes will never challenge the book because he’s too insane and reclusive to publicly denounce it. It’s a plot fit for an evil genius, and Hallström’s rapid-fire depiction of Irving’s initial scheming is light and nimble. What truly makes the early going such a blast, however, is an overriding sense of unembarrassed, impressed appreciation, with the director as charmed by Irving as were the Houghton Mifflin and Life magazine suits who, despite their serious reservations, went ahead with publishing the book because the potential profits were too tempting to pass up.
A tip-top cast that features Alfred Molina (as Irving’s good-natured and malleable researcher/co-conspirator), Marcia Gay Harden (as his cheesily accented Swiss wife), Julie Delpy (as his rich mistress), and Hope Davis (as his rapacious publishing agent) hits all the right notes amid the type of understated, authentic ‘70s period décor found in Zodiac. Yet it’s Gere who demands—and commands—the spotlight, giving Irving a grandiosity of guts, hubris, and recklessness that’s messily intertwined with issues of resentment and anger. With bluster and charm, the actor casts him as a simultaneously genial, charismatic, and conniving gent for whom morals are but pesky distractions on the road to ripping off the world and, just as importantly, showing those idiots what a big, important man he is. And for a while, The Hoax pulls off the delicate trick of dutifully damning its protagonist’s conduct (which nabs him a $1 million advance and a shoulder-load of stress) while nonetheless gleefully enjoying his deceitful ride. But like Irving’s grand sham, it’s a feat Hallström and screenwriter William Wheeler eventually prove incapable of fully sustaining.
As his house of cards begins to teeter, the guilty Irving starts going bonkers like a hybrid of Stephen Glass (or James Frey) and A Beautiful Mind‘s John Nash, imagining conversations, abductions, and that Hughes himself is using the phony memoir to help bring down President Nixon. Shadowy corridors of power, bad wig disguises, and under-lit bedrooms become the order of the day, though such thriller-esque elements aren’t as creaky as the film’s attempts to cast Irving’s deviousness as the byproduct of a decade polluted by the trickle-down dishonesty of Tricky Dick. Hallström fills in his story’s nooks and crannies with newsreel footage of Vietnam protests, racial confrontations, and hushed whispers about Watergate, but this attempt to magnify Irving into some sort of cultural symbol—an emblem of our collective self-interest, avarice, and preference for fame and fortune over virtue—saps him of his unique, fascinating complexity. The Hoax ultimately wants Gere’s swindler to stand for something momentous, for something larger than himself, but in the process, it fails to recognize that what made this con man so fascinating was the astonishing, lunatic singularity of his ambition.