Lasse Hallström has made a career from safe, unremarkable but respectable projects. The kind of thing fare that occasionally gets a few Oscar nods, particularly if the Weinsteins have anything to say about it. His work inspires neither passion nor ire (although Chocolat is a rare exception that many seem to either love or loathe), yet that’s just the kind of galvanising sensibility this picture, based upon Clifford Irving’s attempt in the early 1970s to publish a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes, needed.
The Hoax deserved someone with a real eye for satire, who could traverse the absurd border between fact and fiction and had an ability to integrate those questions about what was made up and what was real into the spine of the movie. The story of Irving’s fabricated tome is fascinating, one with the added cachet of a hotly contested conspiracy theory trailing it. According to this, Hughes hijacked the narrative in order to bring down one-time ally President Nixon. One might be forgiven for concluding the executives at publisher McGraw-Hill, who to be fair were not overly credulous of the notion that this not-so-hot author had the ear of the world’s most renowned recluse, were provided with all the alarm bells they needed. Only a couple of years before his Hughes book, Irving had released Fake: the story of Elmyr de Hory: the greatest art forger of our time. Now he was putting his research into practice, just in a more literary field.
One might have expected Irving, the great gazumper, to be sanguine about the changes William Wheeler’s adaptation made to his novel of the same name (after all, who’s to know how much of the novel is true and how much is Irving’s invention?) So when he dismissed the picture as “a hoax about a hoax”, complete with “absurd” versions of himself (Richard Gere), his wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) and co-author Richard Suskind (Alfred Molina), awash with made up passages, one might take that as the height of charlatan’s compliments. That is, if the alterations add to the impact of the story as a whole.
Because there is a sense that The Hoax could have reached for more, that it could have been more playful with the boundaries of the fiction it sought explore. This did happen in a film made at the same time as the events depicted were occurring, Orson Welles’ F for Fake, a picture the late Robert Anton Wilson found endlessly fascinating, actually featured the real Irving. He appeared ostensibly because Welles’ “documentary” was about Elmyr de Hory, but the subject shifted and evolved when the story of Irving’s hoax became public during the course of production. Wheeler clearly has designs on blurring the lines of truth more than we see in Hallström’s rather literal interpretation. For instance, Irving assumes the role of Hughes as he gets into character, complete with moustache, his psyche gradually inching towards the delusional. Of course, Irving would claim this was baloney, and when Hallström ends a scene where Irving is talking to a character only to show that he is talking to himself, you can’t help but agree; it’s the sledgehammer subtlety of a director who has no ability to let his audience use their imaginations (see also Ron Howard).
The problems with the picture are two-fold, and mostly gather steam during the second half as Irving’s deceit is subject to greater and greater scrutiny. On the one hand, the conflict between the conspiring trio is quite understandable. It needs more juice than just the grand adventure Irving describes the events as, because there should be a level of tension; otherwise, it’s all too easy. But he’s right about Edith being rendered dull; Harden can’t do anything with her, and she becomes a one-note cypher (as is Julie Delpy’s manipulative bit-on-the-side). Molina is great fun, and steals a number of scenes early on with his nervous interjections before bemused executives (“He offered me a prune”). But later, Suskind’s backing-out and the countermeasures taken by Irving feel overly contrived; it’s the sort of thing that could only work if the director was clever enough to comment on the fakery of the contrivance itself. It’s a sequence that starkly focuses in on Irving’s sociopathic qualities, which may be partly why he wasn’t so keen on it, but it does so unnaturally.
The other issue is with Hughes himself. Irving has dismissed the package of files that arrives unsolicited at Gere’s door as a complete invention. That may be so, in which case Wheeler deserves credit for a stroke of narrative genius that outdoes his subject. Once you introduce the idea that the fakery is tarnished with unwitting truth, you’re left with a hall of mirrors of distortion and uncertainty. The suggestion that Hughes would allow the book to proceed for his own ends is immensely attractive; the way in which it is subsequently linked to the Watergate break-ins, just after the threat to both Hughes – through the dropping of the TWA lawsuit – and Tricky Dicky – through ultimately preventing the publishing of a book that might damage him – has subsided, renders the billionaire a supreme arch-manipulator and knocks Irving’s small-time con into the shade. Which seems, in the context of creating a context for Irving, wholly appropriate. Irving is, after all, a man who has dined out for decades on the strength of a lie, yet gets stroppy over others not telling it just right.
It’s in the sequences involving McGraw-Hill that the picture works best. The cast are a treat to watch, from Hope Davis as the editor who began missing meetings with Irving now finding herself pouncing on his publishing goldmine, to Stanley Tucci and Zelijko Ivanek as piqued and derisive editors respectively. Irving’s spinning of the prune scene is a lovely moment, where we are as captivated as the attentive execs. Later, as the haranguing becomes too much, Irving comes right back at them, knowing he has nothing to lose, and his triumph is a delight. In part the pleasure is seeing this elite hoodwinked, but it’s also the hilarity of so-called expert opinion being completely undermined. Irving fakes Hughes’ handwriting. And they sign off on it. Later, after a close associate of Hughes has truth tested the finished autobiography, he congratulates the disbelieving Irving for writing the genuine article.
Gere, gimlet eyes keenly studying the terrain for how best to turn events to his advantage, is more alive here than he has been in years; he’s having some fun, which isn’t like him. Unfortunately, the make-up department aren’t doing him any favours with his wavy dyed hair. I kept expecting a flash-forward twenty years to explain why he looked so silly, and it never came. In general, there’s a failure to make this a believably ’70s milieu; the daft wigs and hair and costumes look like they’ve been donned just for the picture (which again, might have worked if there wore a more self-reflexive tone; as it is, it just seems half-arsed).
A defter hand might have drawn the threads out into something more encompassing, a statement on our general predilection for self-deception (Fincher perhaps, or Oliver Stone before he ran out of steam). Or, just in terms of the exuberance of Irving’s enterprise, I could see the Coens pulling this off with aplomb. But Hallström can never quite steer his ship away from the favoured territory of lightweight and undemanding. It still might be the best American film he’s made, though.