The traditional Hollywood bio-pic reduces a famous life to a couple of platitudes, a two-hour narrative, a big-name star, and a few Oscars. Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator admirably strained the conventions but ultimately, if uncomfortably, fit the mysterious Howard Hughes into the mold. But what about a bio-pic of Clifford Irving, the writer who pretended to be writing Howard Hughes’s autobiography, in the process turning himself into Hughes? One that adapts Irving’s own novel, itself a fictionalization of his own fabrication of someone else’s life? Such a film could elevate high concept to a high plane.
Those dizzy from the disintegration of identity posed by such a project might take heart that the director of The Hoax is Lasse Hallström, whose previous most daunting voyage into the metasphere is probably Chocolat (2000). Nonetheless, the film begins self-reflexively enough in New York in 1970 with Irving (Richard Gere, who knows a thing or two about fraud after the razzle-dazzle of Chicago) chatting with his editors from McGraw Hill about his previous book, Fake!, a biography of Picasso forger Elmyr de Hory. Didn’t it question the authenticity of art? Wasn’t it subversive? Indeed, but as someone points out, it made no money.
Neither will his new book, a novel, because they’re not going to publish it. Irving has a wife (a joyless Marcia Gay Harden) who needs coddling after a recent infidelity, and neither has he quite given up on the mistress, actress Nina Van Pallandt (Julie Delpy, making a career out of being a male obsession), lounging in a transparent nightgown in the Plaza Hotel. He needs a big score and soon.
What to do? Well, maybe all the references to Howard Hughes he keeps bumping into in magazine stories and on the news mean something. And when he gets bumped out of his room in a Hughes-owned hotel in the Bahamas because the great man wants to occupy the entire place himself, he finally gets it. He realizes that writing about fakery is not nearly as lucrative, or as much fun, as practicing it, and the ideal target of fraud is the guy who just evicted him.
So The Hoax becomes a bit like The Sting, a buddy movie with con men, as Irving cajoles his long-suffering, heavy-sweating but equally venal researcher, Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), into helping out. Together they ferret out enough data to mimic the enigmatic recluse, hitting the jackpot with the unpublished memoir of a Hughes associate and padding the gaps with government records and old newsreels. Thus armed, Irving assumes his subject’s voice and persona, turns on a tape recorder, and lets the shit fly.
For a while it works as he faces down the suspicions of his haughty editors (including a waspish Hope Davis) with exhilarating audacity, raising the stakes higher with each confrontation. Molina and Gere make a funny team of delightful scamps, and a fascinating subplot emerges connecting Irving, Hughes, Richard Nixon, Watergate, and just about every conspiracy theory of the 1970s.
But things go sour with thudding predictability and programmatic foreshadowings. As alliances unravel, Irving inevitably starts to become as paranoid as Hughes. What’s real and what’s imagined? It’s the charlatan version of A Beautiful Mind, and in the end Hallström, like Ron Howard, tames a mind-boggling subject into an engaging, mediocre movie. Now if Hallström had only directed The Aviator and Scorsese had done The Hoax. . .