Film: or Fiction?

Lasse Hallstrom nearly pulls off 'The Hoax'

Richard Gere and Hope Davis star in The Hoax.

Clifford Irving was a writer of middling interest in the early 1970s. Yet thanks to a wild stroke of inspiration he became a singular force in the literary industry.

As Lasse Hallstrom's The Hoax purports, Irving (played by an exuberantly flim-flammy Richard Gere) — facing the loss of a book deal from his major publishing house editor Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) — spends a weekend wandering blindly among the signs anyone would need pointing to the single greatest living subject for an authorized/unauthorized biography, the enigmatic and reclusive Howard Hughes. Irving doesn't figure it out until a photo of the billionaire sticks to the bottom of his shoe.

Of course, once this inciting incident occurs, The Hoax is off and running, throwing as many balls in the air as possible. Hallstrom's film celebrates this frenzied spirit, although after a while it — and the audience — sit helplessly as everything comes crashing down.

Hallstrom and Gere are aided and abetted by a sly cast, each pulling off individual cons that sometimes support the overall ruse, sometimes not. The most valuable player would have to be Alfred Molina as Irving's best friend, Dick Susskind.

Susskind, another writer existing below the mainstream reader's radar, is Irving's sidekick, confidante and often the guy who must step in to straighten up whatever mess Irving creates. From an adulterous relationship with one Nina Van Pallandt (Julie Delpy) that is never fully explored to all of the fancy footwork and on-the-spot lying required to keep the Hughes gambit in play, Susskind is game — although it's obvious that he lacks the cunning and ruthless nature to offer more than limited support.

Molina, more than seemingly any other performer in The Hoax, grasps his role in terms of the big picture. Watching him stumble and stammer through the film left me wondering the result if Molina had played Irving rather than Gere.

Both actors fill the frame and project the requisite larger-than-life presence, but Gere has an elegant movie-star charm that he can't seem to turn off, and it doesn't quite match up with this crude, ballsy affair. Molina, like recent Academy Award winner Forrest Whitaker, can be either graceless or fluid without straining credibility.

Which leads to us Hallstrom, a director of supreme sheen who baits studio executives and audiences alike with his beguiling adaptations of literary works. From What's Eating Gilbert Grape? to The Cider House Rules to Chocolat, Hallstrom has projected the illusion of substance by diverting the eye with stylistic elements and big-named casts. But few of his films are remembered beyond the awards nominations they have earned.

Lately it would appear that audiences and critics alike have begun to see through the guise and gauze that shrouds his work. An Unfinished Life and Casanova failed to stir the hearts and minds (or loins, which in the case of Casanova might have been an even more serious crime), although in each case little in his formula has changed.

Hallstrom has continued to attract first-rate collaborators (Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman in Life and Casanova offered up Heath Ledger in the midst of the Brokeback Mountain buzz) and the material, while not so overtly literary, had lofty aspirations.

So does he tip his hand further in The Hoax? As I mentioned earlier, the film crackles with nervy energy in its first half, especially with the charge of actors like Stanley Tucci and Marcia Gay Harden improvising their way through the proceedings in support of and in sneaky attempts to steal the rug right out from under Gere and Molina.

It is difficult to discuss this film without mentioning Martin Scorsese's The Aviator and Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can. The Aviator gave us a Hughes, but DiCaprio couldn't quite bring the gravitas to make him larger than life in that at first glamorous, then nutty way. And the catch with Catch Me was that Spielberg's caper was too slick, just as Gere is here.

At least initially, Hallstrom recognizes that the stakes are high. Unfortunately, the weight bears down during the second half and The Hoax is hopelessly crushed by the need to turn Irving into A Beautiful Mind(ed) genius. Even with all the grace and charm of Gere and company, Hallstrom, just like Irving, can't steal the big prize. Grade: C+

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