The Hoax – Too Close For Comfort

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You’ll long to laugh when you see The Hoax.

After all, Richard Gere and Alfred Molina are simply hilarious as partners in slime Clifford Irving and Richard Susskind (dare we call them “writers”?) who, in the early 1970s, duped a then greedy and gullible McGraw-Hill into a princely $765,000 advance for the fabrication which they merchandised as “The Autobiography of Howard Hughes.”

So while you may feel inclined to give way to laughter early in the film, you’ll feel even more tempted to scream out loud at each of Irving’s and Susskind’s progressively diabolical schemes.

And if your own carefully measured laughter weren’t enough, rest assured that you’ll long to feel unalloyed sadness as you watch The Hoaxir?t=identitytheor 20&l=as2&o=1&a=B000TAN90Y&camp=217145&creative=399349.

Throughout the film, the pathetic antics of Irving (Gere) and Susskind (Molina) take them deeper and deeper into an ethical morass through each misstep of their delicate dance with McGraw-Hill (and with Time-Life for serial rights). Susskind is at once comical and pitiful early in the film when he tries on a vacationer’s scuba diving outfit in anticipation of big-time publishing rewards. Irving tells him he looks like a sausage, but of course the metaphor of a bottom feeder is not for one minute lost on us. Irving, a more evolved form of literary species, seems to navigate the same playing field with more poise and cunning. Yet he fiercely depends on Susskind to cover his ass, and to blow the whistle when he’s off sides.

What a team these two make: continually lying for (and to) each other, tirelessly refining and rehearsing cons, scenarios and pitches to their publisher. Once in awhile, you feel you’re watching a latter-day Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, but Irving and Susskind lack any noble purpose or, for that matter, good intention. Laurel and Hardy would at first blush seem more apt an historical model, yet the game for this movie’s daring duo is more convoluted and played for much higher stakes. Failure for Irving and Susskind in the end holds consequences more serious than a mere pratfall.

Finally, when you’ve finished watching The Hoax, you’ll long to feel outrage.

Yet – and here’s the rub – at film’s end, you’ll find it as difficult to feel outrage as you did pure humor or pure sadness.

Gere’s and Molina’s acting are undeniably superb. For that matter, so are the performances by the supporting cast, particularly those of Marcia Gay Harden as Irving’s wife and Hope Davis as Andrea Tate, Irving’s editor. Lasse Hallström, who brought us The Shipping News (2001) and The Cider House Rules (1999), certainly comes through with his customary authentic directing. And William Wheeler, scriptwriter of The Prime Gig (2000), a sinfully under-promoted film about land investment salesmen, gives us a marvelous script based on the book Irving wrote about his original “hoax” of a book. (Can we have a show of sympathy here for Wheeler’s fact checkers?)

Why then do we feel blocked from our own laughter, sadness and outrage when we watch this movie? Is it conceivable that The Hoax somehow falls short of the sum of its first-rate parts?

The key, I think, lies in timing: this film has caught us as a society standing too close to the mirror. As I write this review, we are days away from the very public resignation and apology of MariLee Jones, Dean of Admissions at MIT, for concocting, and then sustaining, the twenty-eight-year lie that she holds so much as an undergraduate degree. The infamous Enron convictions are only a year away. We are a only a decade removed from the phony stories that Stephen Glass hacked out for The New Republic, and four years removed from the movie Shattered Glass about the same scandal. Clearly, the years the director and writer would have us view as nostalgic are upon us and much too close for comfort.

Hallström must have had his own concerns that a contemporary tale about Clifford Irving might fade to gray in an era that has outgunned Irving in imaginative schemes, for he gets a bit carried away in an attempt to inject his film with a 1970s flavor. The references to Watergate and the famous signature coke commercial “It’s the Real Thing” are simply too cheap and obvious, and a good deal of the setting – the music, the war and the peace demonstrations – comes off as forced, as if to announce “this is when America first lost its innocence.” That’s a whopping bill of goods to pawn off on a movie audience who is convinced it just forked out too much for its popcorn and its less-than-real Coke.

Still, the basics are skillfully enough handled such that a less jaded future audience might forgive the film its jawboned contemporary elements and never even notice some of the gaffes which Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) reports: “Each time Irving and Susskind drive into town, the same cars are parked in the same places.”

Or in this age of cheap apologies and quick spiritual comebacks, perhaps Irving, who despite a recent blasé interview on 60 Minutes, might come to regret his past and soon make Hollywood privy to The Hoax II: Remorse and Redemption.

But don’t hold your breath.

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