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The Hoax (5/10)

by Tony Medley

This presents a paradox; to wit, if the story of Clifford Irving’s (Richard Gere) phony autobiography of Howard Hughes is such a good one, why was it mutated with silly fictional flourishes? Irving set the literary world aflame in the late 1971 by producing a manuscript purported to be based on hours of personal interviews with the reclusive billionaire. He hoodwinked McGraw-Hill into paying almost a million dollars and going to the brink of printing it before Hughes appeared on a national TV hookup to debunk it. What he wrote was based on his own imagination and what he learned from a purloined copy of a manuscript by long-time Hughes aide Noah Dietrich. When it was all over Irving and his researcher, Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) and his Swiss wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) spent two years in jail. Irving got out and wrote a book about the caper, “The Hoax,” which is the basis for this movie.

That should be a pretty good story to make into a movie. And the parts where Irving is selling the story to the hapless McGraw-Hill executives, among them Irving’s editor, Andrea Tate (Hope Davis), whose name was changed probably for legal reasons, and Shelton Fisher (Stanley Tucci, in a surprisingly minimal role for the talented actor), then President of McGraw-Hill, are very good, indeed. But the rest of the film is where the movie loses its grip. The thing about this story that’s interesting is that it actually happened. A writer actually faked an entire manuscript and sold it to a major publisher and had the world atwitter awaiting its publication. How in the world did he do it?

Telling the real story would be fascinating. Alas, director Lasse Hallstrom (responsible for the incredibly disappointing “Casanova” in 2005) and screenwriter William Wheeler couldn’t keep their mitts out of the story. Instead of taking a tale of terrific chutzpah, and telling it straight (as was done by director Billy Ray in 2003’s “Shattered Glass,” for example), these guys have to meddle in it and ruin it. Wheeler actually justifies his meddling by saying, “I don’t think you could do this story justice without bringing a bit of mischief to it. We each added our own creative touches to the tale.” Can’t do the story justice by telling it straight? “Our own creative touches?” This is how ego can torpedo a project with such great potential. What could be more creative than what Irving almost pulled off?

This was such a leap by Irving, such an achievement in terms of a caper, I want to see the entire, true story. I want to walk out of the film and say, “Wow, I can see how he almost pulled it off!” When filmmakers meddle with a great story and put in their own little “touches,” it robs the film if its verisimilitude and it just becomes another in a long list of too long (4 minutes under 2 hours), relatively uninvolving fictional tales that are quickly forgotten. Even Richard Gere, were he at the top of his game, which he’s not, would not save this.

March 13, 2007