What makes THE HOAX such a thoroughly enjoyable ride is that even though its anti-hero, Clifford Irving, is perpetrating the eponymous hoax, he is so good at it. His exuberance during the highs and even the lows of his scheme as kinks pop up is infectious. He is having such a good time plotting it, and he is so dedicated to getting the details right as much to mass muster with the experts as to fulfill his own high standards, that even though it is wrong, he’s the one to root for.
As the film opens, Irving is on the verge of a breaking into the big time with his new novel. An early review in a respected publication, though, changes all that and as quickly as the world was opening up to him, he finds all doors closed. Demoralized, scorned and tossed on the trash heap that was his promising career, he comes up with an audacious plan that he is convinced will work not in spite of its audacity, but >because< of it. He will sell the publishers the autobiography, with himself as editor and go-between, of Howard Hughes, the mad hermit billionaire that communicates directly with no one, not even his top aides. Forging his handwriting, researching his life with a scrutiny that leads to theft of government documents, he becomes intimately schooled not just in the facts of Hughes’ life, but convinces himself that he is privy to what makes Hughes tick.
Irving sees an opportunity and takes it, but the film becomes about more than just gullible nature of human beings that he’s hit upon. It dissects with a precise and unforgiving scalpel the million tiny hypocrisies that make up the everyday interactions with our fellow beings, and the million tiny lies we tell ourselves to get from one day to another. For most, it’s a white lie about how someone looks, or a justification for not handing back too much change when its rendered by mistake, for him, it’s a payback and a payday.
Gere is deft as the con man with a glib tongue and an even quicker lie, communicating the audience the adrenaline rush of fear and delight in weaving this increasingly large, increasingly complex lie that eventually becomes too much for him to keep afloat with all faculties intact. He is charismatic and charming, whether taking down his once and future publisher (Hope Davis) a few notches, juggling his wife (Marcia Gay Hardin) and girlfriend (Julie Delpy), or smoothing over the gaffes invariably caused by his less than smooth partner in crime (Alfred Molina). Molina, with his awkwardness and hang-dog face is dead-on perfect as a doofus who talks his way into the scheme and then spends the rest of the movie wailing with delicious melodrama over what will happen to him when it all comes out wrong.
The DVD release has a fine selection of bonus features, including “Truth is Stranger Than Fiction”, which includes clips of Irving bamboozling Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes” in 1972, and Wallace, in the present admiring the way Irving pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. Everyone does. The cast and crew interviews toss around the idea of the hoax as performance art, and considering the impact it had and the implications it still has, it’s a fair assessment. The filmmaker commentary by Lasse Hallstrom and writer William Wheeler is the better of the two choices, not just for the film itself, but especially for the deleted scenes, where they rehash the reasons the scenes were taken out and mull over what the problems were, each seeing it as their exclusive failing. There’s more of Wallace in his own bonus feature talking even more about Irving and the joy of being fooled. He also hits on something integral to the story. Everyone >wanted< it to be true.
THE HOAX is a morality tale, turned sideways and inside out. Equally indicting the hoaxer of the piece, the rapacious greed of the media, and the even more rapacious appetite of the public for the inside story of the rich and famous. And in that is has a piquant twist. Here’s a movie about the not-so-rich, and thoroughly infamous who almost but didn’t quite ride the coattails of the ci-mentioned to success. If he’s famous, or infamous, does it really matter and what does it say that there is an appetite for the story?