It’s been a long time since American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman were relevant. Even 1990’s Pretty Woman seems remarkably dated. Richard Gere, the star of these box office hits, made a mini comeback with a few stiff song-and-dance numbers in 2002’s Chicago, but even then he was a shell of the beady-eyed big screen babe he was 25 years prior.
That’s why nobody could have predicted his neurotic playboy resurgence as Clifford Irving in The Hoax. Gere’s surprising feistiness offers the only explanation why this mostly middling film has become a darling among critics and lofted its star into Oscar consideration. Gere deserves accolades and perhaps a token nomination (he’s never been recognized with one before), but it doesn’t change the fact that a film based on a baffling series of real events never delivers its own surprises.
The Hoax introduces Irving as a once promising author of increasingly diminished stature. In need of a major break, he concocts an elaborate story about billionaire recluse Howard Hughes tapping him, of all people, to write an authorized biography. A forged letter and fast talking gets Irving the deal, but he’s then forced to follow through—deliver a credible manuscript, cover a mounting trail of lies, figure a way to deposit advance checks made out to Hughes and somehow maintain a level of sanity underneath all of the make-believe. Add to this Irving’s fragile marriage crippled by—isn’t this convenient—lies, the inherent paranoia of his double-crossing the infinitely powerful Hughes, and a detailed subplot involving Hughes’ supposed connection to Watergate, and Irving is drowning in self-imposed drama.
There’s a lot here for Gere to chew on, but director Lasse Hallström (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) never lets it settle long enough to matter. The Hoax moves so fast from crisis to crisis that by the end we’re left feeling more tired than sympathetic, more manipulated than entertained, more skeptical of directorial license than awed by actual history. (Irving himself has gone to great lengths to discredit the film’s depiction of his tell-all book by the same title.) There’s not much to do but shake one’s head at a movie that’s essentially a missed opportunity, and notice the actor who capitalizes on his biggest opportunity in years.