I am constantly amazed by the words “based on a true story.” The words are awfully tricky. Movies that advertise those five little words walk a very thin line. The story that they tell needs to be mainly true to life, and yet be appropriately “tweaked” in order to make for an interesting movie. Go too far in either direction and the filmmakers will never be forgiven. Richard Gere's latest film to appear on DVD, The Hoax, more often than not manages to negotiate the difficulties successfully.
The film, directed by Lasse Halström, follows the exploits of Clifford Irving (Richard Gere), as he tries to convince first a publishing company, and then the world, that he is collaborating with Howard Hughes on Hughes' autobiography.
In reality, Irving is collaborating with a different writer, Richard Suskind (Alfred Molina), and has never met Hughes. Rather, the two of them have decided to pull the wool over the eyes of their publisher and make some money in the process. Irving never met Howard Hughes. Irving was not working with Howard Hughes. Irving and Suskind did a lot of research on Hughes, including searching the Library of Congress and talking to people that used to work for him, and fabricated much of what they wrote.
Irving thought he could get away with it because there were so many rumors about Hughes and no one knew what the truth was. The only thing that was clear was that Hughes was a recluse and never confirmed nor denied stories about himself (one of the reasons Irving thought they could get away with it).
The movie shows various moments during Irving and Suskind's writing of the book that they could have gotten caught, that they almost got caught, and that they should have gotten caught. Yet, somehow, until Hughes came out of hiding and gave a phone interview, they never quite did.
Gere is the standout in the film, carrying much of the weight of the picture on his shoulders. He appears completely believable as the con man Irving, and succeeds in getting the viewer on his side during the film. Molina, as his compatriot, is perfectly acceptable in the role, but ends up far too often being comedic relief. One is never quite sure why it is that Irving accepts Suskind as a co-author much less a friend. Suskind is made out as sniveling, inconstant, and entirely too scared to ever have partaken in such a scam.
The main problem with the film however is that Irving's reasons are never made clear. The movie posits early on that Irving decided to pretend to be working with Hughes on the book because he was hurt that the publisher didn't like his last submission and that he needed money.
While the former may be true, one of the bonus featurettes included on the DVD states that Irving had plenty of money. Whether or not he did, the complexities of the scheme he concocted seem wholly out of proportion with the goal. Though Hughes was a recluse and refused to talk to some of his closest advisors, The Hoax makes it appear as though Irving would have had an easier time getting through to Hughes than going around him.
While the movie is very good at recording the various tricks that Irving developed to convince people of the veracity of his claim, too little time is spent exploring the character himself. By not providing Irving with sufficient, and believable, motivation for his actions, the audience is constantly left pondering why Irving even bothered.
Watching The Hoax unfold is enjoyable, some of the fancy footwork Irving goes through is quite incredible (and some of the better moments may never have actually happened). However, because the film cannot provide sufficient, logical, reasons for Irving to do what he did, one cannot help but feel that the movie lacks something crucially important.
What Irving did was monumental. He convinced everyone, including Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, that he was telling the truth. But the “why” is missing and really needs to be there.
The DVD release of The Hoax includes two behind the scenes featurettes (one of which focuses on Mike Wallace), deleted scenes, and an extended scene. It also has commentary on the feature itself by two of the producers.