Old Dog’s New Tricks

Salt Lake City Weekly | March 30, 2007
Sometimes you have to search to find irony; sometimes it just reaches out and bites you. Take the career of Lasse Hallström, for example. In 1985, the Swedish director made his international name with the art-house success My Life as a Dog. And for most of the past decade, that title pretty much described his career. When Harvey and Bob Weinstein needed a go-to director for their literary-pedigree, respect-grubbing dramas at Miramax, they whistled, and Hallström came running. The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Shipping News, An Unfinished Life … yep, Lasse was the Weinsteins’ Oscar-bait bitch.

Hallström was the poster boy for tediously respectable awards-season fodder for so long that it was reasonable to assume he would never again come through with a film built on idiosyncratic energy. But last year he went goofy with Casanova and now here he is, helming the adaptation of Clifford Irving’s infamous adventures as a literary-world charlatan. And damned if he doesn’t give The Hoax quality you couldn’t ascribe to many previous Hallström films: fun.

In 1971, Irving (Richard Gere) is a writer on the verge of ruin. His non-fiction work hasn’t performed well, and his most recent novel has been rejected by his publisher (Hope Davis) at McGraw Hill. Facing foreclosure on his house, Gere comes up with a desperate plan: He’ll completely fabricate a letter from notoriously reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes authorizing Irving to ghost-write his autobiography. With their subject unlikely to come forward to refute their claims, Irving and his writing partner Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) think they’re on the road to riches—until their story starts coming a part one little piece at a time.

The blandly attractive Gere has never exactly been the most versatile of actors, but occasionally he finds something that settles snugly in his wheelhouse. As Irving, he’s surprisingly effective as a desperate schemer and philanderer for whom deception is an easy way to have people think better of him; it’s a nice counterpart to Hayden Christensen’s callow performance in Shattered Glass. He’s also got a terrific wing-man in Molina, who plays the henpecked beta-male Suskind with a perpetual sheen of guilty, anxious sweat. As someone who “tells” every lie with a swig of water or a dash to the bathroom, he’s like the guy you pray is at your poker table.

Gere and Molina head a great cast—Davis, Stanley Tucci, Eli Wallach—but the real star here is Hallström’s direction. In William Wheeler’s adaptation of Irving’s memoir, he’s got what should be a fool-proof story full of twists, tension and wild developments. But he maintains a crisp, snappy pacing through Irving and Suskind’s most outrageous adventures—sneaking documents out of the Pentagon, fleeing the scene of an expected call from the real Hughes—that gives it the propulsive feel of a heist caper. Visually, he represents Irving’s elaborate concoctions as pieces cobbled together from research and his own experiences, the lies of a born storyteller who knows that he can sell the details. Add a wonderfully funky Carter Burwell score, and you’ve got something that rarely loses momentum.

If Hallström stumbles anywhere, it’s in his awkward attempts to wrestle The Hoax into a historical context. Archival footage pops up periodically to remind us that yes, this is the turbulent early 1970s, and yes, there were anti-war protesters in the streets, and (giggle giggle) yes, Richard Nixon did once stump for George H. W. Bush in Texas. When documents dropped on Irving’s doorstep present a smoking gun of Nixon having accepted bribes from Hughes—and the film builds the case that the Watergate break-in was directly precipitated by fears about Irving’s book—it starts to feel a bit over-inflated regardless of whether it’s factually accurate. That this story is of the counter-culture era seems far more incidental than Hallström attempts to suggest.

Yet this problem proves, by and large, to be a superficial one. Hallström generally adds to the story’s inherent intrigue rather than detracting from it. The Hoax delivers an entertaining portrait of a man who was so eager for acclaim as an artist that he lost all sense of who he really was. Maybe that used to sound like Lasse Hallström, but his life as a dog has given way to some new tricks.


*** (three stars out of four)

Starring Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Hope Davis.

Directed by Lasse Hallström

Rated R.

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