Would you buy the autobiography of Howard Hughes from a man who wrote a book about art fraud and whose novel you'd just rejected as a pale imitation of another author's work? You would if you were McGraw-Hill and you were almost as afraid of looking stupid if it turns out to be real and you rejected it than if it turns out to be a fake you handed out a million dollar advance for. It's a pitch so ridiculous it could only be a true story, though quite how true the sadly overlooked The Hoax is is open to question since it's based on the how-I-nearly-got-away-with-it book by the fraud in question, Clifford Irving, who in turns claims he was defrauded by the filmmakers who turned his book into pure fiction...
The real Irving can be seen in Orson Welles F For Fake, where he goes from expert on art frauds to a literary fraud himself in the course of the film, but while Welles doesn't figure in Lasse Hallström's film it does share some of the devious sense of fun the semi-documentary displayed. The mechanics of the fraud - looking up Hughes' Senate testimony for syntax and speech patterns, photocopying a Hughes' aide's manuscript for insider gossip - are detailed as an exhilarating adrenaline rush, the film perfectly capturing the intoxicating thrill that comes with thinking you're getting away with an outrageous scam and the crash into paranoia as you defend the indefensible so much that the only person you end up fooling is yourself. It also delights in the constant Alice in Wonderland logic of it all: as Richard Gere's Irving explains to Alfred Molina as his researcher and `co-author' Richard Susskind, "(Hughes will) never come out of hiding long enough to denounce me because he's a lunatic hermit and I am the spokesman for the lunatic hermit, so the more outrageous I sound, the more convincing I am!" Too convincing, because Irving gradually starts becoming Hughes as he dictates the millionaire's `memoirs' in the millionaires clothes and pencil moustache until he starts believing his own lies and manages to convince himself that maybe Hughes really is collaborating on the book in his own way to further his own political ends. Just to add to the absurdity, when Hughes does indeed break cover to denounce the book, the experts think the recluse is so contradictory that no-one initially believes his denials!
There are occasional missteps - it's hard to believe that Irving's lover would describe herself to him as shallow and the film does threaten to overreach itself as it outlines a possible conspiracy with Hughes using the controversy to gain leverage with Nixon, inadvertently precipitating Watergate, but by this point it's possible that everything we see is just a fantasy fuelled by Irving's hubris and overactive imagination. Even a couple of truly terrible bits of back projection, one intentional, one not, seem entirely acceptable in context. Boasting a boxer's nose and an air of self-righteous hunger, Gere gives his best performance since Internal Affairs, while Molina and Stanley Tucci offer very different but complimentary comic performances (the one driven by sweaty desperation, the other by callous arrogance) and Hallström's direction is better than anything he's done in years (there's a particularly great shot late in the film at the moment of Irving's triumph of Hughes' suddenly malignant photo over his shoulder practically willing him on to his self-destruction).
So, is the last third a hoax? Is the whole film? With a delightful lack of irony, Irving has publicly criticized the film, claiming it completely distorts events by making him look dumb and is a complex hoax that trivializes his achievement. And who are we to doubt him?
This is the kind of film that cries out for supplementary material, but sadly all you get is a brief trailer. Still, the film is good enough on its own, and the disc offers a good widescreen transfer.