Funny, thrillingly-plotted and wonderfully performed, The Hoax is seat-grippingly good.
In 1971, struggling writer Clifford Irving bagged a million dollar deal for the publishing coup of the century - a biography of super-celebrity and recluse Howard Hughes. Except it was a hoax. He’d never met the billionaire, let alone been entrusted with his memoirs. The fallout was a publishing scandal that rocked the USA.
In The Hoax, this palm-sweating game of high-stakes is brought vividly to life. Starting out as prank against publisher McGraw-Hill, the ruse runs away with itself as Irving ups the ante every time his scam is questioned. Brilliantly posing the power of a poker-faced lie, The Hoax is a heady delight – beginning as a comedy and spiralling into a psychological thriller.
Irving gambles that the movie-mogul’s hatred of the limelight will prevent him blowing the whistle. And so, re-writing existing material and inventing interviews, Irving concocts an ‘exclusive’ biography. But when the publishers want to see the drafts and hear the tapes, Irving piles on the lies – and loses grip on reality. And all the while, the dark shadow of the unpredictable Hughes looms in the wings.
Director Lasse Hallestrom (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat) deftly recreates the possibilities and paranoia of the early 70s and the Nixon era. But his masterstroke is the casting of Richard Gere in a real return to form. Certainly no officer, or a gentleman, Gere’s Irving is a mischievous, philandering joker whose love of the game escalates into an egotistical delirium – not unlike the famed Hughes himself.
The Hoax reminds us how good an actor Gere is when playing dubious characters (Chicago, Internal Affairs), roguishly amusing and thoroughly serpentine. Ably assisted by Alfred Molina as his reluctant partner-in-crime, Dick Suskind, it’s a comedy double act to die for. But when Irving’s publisher turns the screw, Hallestrom niftily ratchets up the tension, eliciting winces at the predicament and gasps at Irving’s bare-faced cheek.
Redford’s Quiz Show successfully recalled a 50s TV scam. Spielberg and DiCaprio’s Catch Me If You Can was a sunny-side up recreation of a sixties con. The Hoax entertains as much but plumbs murkier depths. Almost Faustian, Gere’s cockiness plummets into haunted paranoia – cleverly brought to life in monochrome sequences which may or may not be real, as the cold hands of Hughes and the police reach out for him.
An early alarm call for the Academy Awards, The Hoax is an intelligent, tense exploration of Scott’s old maxim: “O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive”.