Enough of Lasse Hallström’s recent films (Casanova, Chocolat) have been such studious, pandering simulations of delightful romps that his enthusiasm for telling the real-life story of Clifford Irving is a surprise and a relief.
Irving, played in the film version by Richard Gere, was a struggling novelist who sold a phony Howard Hughes autobiography to the McGraw-Hill publishing company — and nearly, as the movie tells it, got away with a million-dollar advance.
Like a lot of recent movies set in the 70s, The Hoax evokes its time period by simulating a low-tech look. A roving handheld camera gives the film an energetic case of the jitters to match the maneuverings of Irving and his sweaty researcher sidekick (Alfred Molina); that they’re not (quite) professional con artists is both the danger and the fun. Without flinching from the torrent of lies, infidelity, and delusions that comprises Irving’s adventures, Hallström comes up with something looser and jauntier than his obvious crowd-pleasers.
Gere, too, is playing above his usual wan levels, tapping into Irving’s very American combination of cynical hucksterism and sincere, dreamy ambition; he also lets Molina get a lot of the biggest nervous laughs. The Hoax is entertaining as long as it sticks to the mechanics of a big, improvisational lie. After a point, the details of Irving’s close calls become fuzzier and the pace drags towards the inevitable “all went wrong” finale (another hallmark of movies set in this decade). By then, the months-long scam and the two-hour movie induce a similar reaction: You’re amazed (but secretly a little impressed) that it lasted as long as it did.