Richard Gere excels in this riveting cat-and-mouse story.
The Hoax is based on the true story of Clifford Irving, a journalist who in 1971 orchestrated one of the most outrageous ruses in the history of American publishing with his so-called "autobiography" of Howard Hughes. Irving's book was revealed to be fraudulent soon after its publication, when the notoriously reclusive Hughes took the rare step of publicly refuting it via a telephoned press conference.
The Hoax director Lasse Hallstrom (Cider House Rules, Chocolat) creates an utterly fascinating portrait of Irving, following the author as he devises his plan, sells it to his publisher and goes to increasingly desperate lengths to preserve the illusion.
In the lead role of Irving, Richard Gere headlines a formidable cast that includes heavyweights Hope Davis, Alfred Molina and Marcia Gay Harden. Gere exudes charm and hubris as Irving, a man who never quite seems to grasp the consequences of his operation until it all falls apart. On the contrary, he relishes the cat-and-mouse game of staying one step ahead of his suspicious publisher.
While supremely entertaining, The Hoax ultimately fails to effectively answer one key question: Why? Why would a successful author risk so much -- his reputation, his livelihood and, ultimately, his freedom -- for a venture that seems so obviously doomed from the outset?
Not that it doesn't try. In a sequence that borrows heavily from A Beautiful Mind, an increasingly delusional Irving is kidnapped and roughed up by Hughes's henchmen, then tossed out of a building into a pool several stories below. The scene, which is later revealed to have occurred entirely inside Irving's head, feels like an unfair -- and entirely unnecessary -- trick, a cinematic sleight of hand used by the screenwriter to ratchet up the suspense. (To my knowledge, there's no little evidence that Irving suffered from the same debilitating paranoid schizophrenia that afflicted A Beautiful Mind's John Nash.)
Nevertheless, it isn't nearly enough to derail this otherwise meticulously crafted film. Rookie con artists like A Million Little Pieces author James Frey would do well to check out The Hoax to learn how a real literary scam is perpetrated.