April 12, 2007

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The Hoax (R)
Richard Gere cons his way into a pretty sweet book deal in The Hoax, based on the true story of a real life con and the way it had sneaky little ripple effects on the course of American history.

Clifford Irving (Gere) is on the brink of having his novel published but McGraw Hill walks away from it after the editor of the New Yorker pans it. Stuck with no book deal but a whole lotta bills, Clifford tells McGraw Hill’s Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) that he’s got the book of the century — an autobiography of reclusive nutcase millionaire Howard Hughes. Clifford of course has no such thing but he and his researcher Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina) decide that perhaps they can fake one. Hughes won’t sue them, Clifford reasons, because he has other lawsuits pending against him. Hughes might deny it but he’s wacky enough that a denial won’t absolutely led people to believe the book isn’t genuine. All they need, Clifford says, is to get enough real-sounding details about Howard Hughes and his various business dealings that they can get the facts and then fake the Hughes viewpoint.

At first, they have some successes. They sneak top secret files about Hughes’ dealings with the defense department out of the Pentagon. They get inside details about Hughes’ aviation companies from a never-published book written by a former employee. They get handwriting samples from old magazines and other information from the Library of Congress and from old congressional hearings. Soon, Clifford can fake Hughes’ handwriting and, with a bit of method acting, get into Hughes personality, thus giving the book “Howard Hughes’” voice.

Though not completely convinced that Howard Hughes is onboard the project, McGraw Hill’s executives agree to buy the book, brushing off at every turn obvious signs of fishiness (Clifford tells them to make the check out to H.R. Hughes instead of Howard Hughes — his wife Edith [Marcia Gay Harden] then takes the check to Switzerland and cashes it as Helga Hughes). Soon Clifford himself even becomes convinced that Howard Hughes supports his project. A box of files shows up at his house full of information about Hughes’ government dealings, specifically cases involving the bribery of Richard Nixon. Of course, even though he succeeds at fooling some of the people some of the time, Clifford’s con can not fool enough of the people forever.

The Hoax is a lively crime caper and is at its most surprising when we realize that Clifford’s con might not be the only one going on. The movie’s end credits suggest that paranoia over a belief that the Democrats had the Howard Hughes books was one of the things that led to the White House ordered break in of the Watergate. The Howard Hughes book that wasn’t is a juicy little footnote to the presidency ending scandal that I hadn’t heard before.

Then there is the internal con, the one that Clifford Irving runs on himself. He starts to believe, not only in his ability to pull of the Hughes con but that it might be true and that he himself might have some special knowledge of Hughes (he dresses like him and affects his accent for “interviews” with Dick Susskind). Gere does a good job of playing a man getting lost in his own hype. An adultery subplot helps to underline the overall slipperiness of Irving’s character.

The Hoax is another one of these surprising, quiet movies realized with little fanfare this late-winter/early-spring. Just like The Lookout and Zodiac, The Hoax is a smart, sly, grown-up trip to the cinema. B

Rated R for language. Directed by Lasse Hallström and written by William Wheeler from the book by Clifford Irving, The Hoax is an hour and 55 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Miramax Films.