Skip to main content

He offered me a prune.


The Hoax
(2006)

Lasse Hallström has made a career from safe, unremarkable but respectable projects. The kind of thing fare that occasionally gets a few Oscar nods, particularly if the Weinsteins have anything to say about it. His work inspires neither passion nor ire (although Chocolat is a rare exception that many seem to either love or loathe), yet that’s just the kind of galvanising sensibility this picture, based upon Clifford Irving’s attempt in the early 1970s to publish a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes, needed.


The Hoax deserved someone with a real eye for satire, who could traverse the absurd border between fact and fiction and had an ability to integrate those questions about what was made up and what was real into the spine of the movie. The story of Irving’s fabricated tome is fascinating, one with the added cachet of a hotly contested conspiracy theory trailing it. According to this, Hughes hijacked the narrative in order to bring down one-time ally President Nixon. One might be forgiven for concluding the executives at publisher McGraw-Hill, who to be fair were not overly credulous of the notion that this not-so-hot author had the ear of the world’s most renowned recluse, were provided with all the alarm bells they needed. Only a couple of years before his Hughes book, Irving had released Fake: the story of Elmyr de Hory: the greatest art forger of our time. Now he was putting his research into practice, just in a more literary field.


One might have expected Irving, the great gazumper, to be sanguine about the changes William Wheeler’s adaptation made to his novel of the same name (after all, who’s to know how much of the novel is true and how much is Irving’s invention?) So when he dismissed the picture as “a hoax about a hoax”, complete with “absurd” versions of himself (Richard Gere), his wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) and co-author Richard Suskind (Alfred Molina), awash with made up passages, one might take that as the height of charlatan’s compliments. That is, if the alterations add to the impact of the story as a whole.


Because there is a sense that The Hoax could have reached for more, that it could have been more playful with the boundaries of the fiction it sought explore. This did happen in a film made at the same time as the events depicted were occuring, Orson Welles’ F for Fake, apicture the late great Robert Anton Wilson found endlessly fascinating, actually featured the real Irving. He appeared ostensibly because Welles’ “documentary” was about Elmyr de Hory, but the subject shifted and evolved when the story of Irving’s hoax became public during the course of production. Wheeler clearly has designs on blurring the lines of truth more than we see in Hallström’s rather literal interpretation. For instance, Irving assumes the role of Hughes as he gets into character, complete with moustache, his psyche gradually inching towards the delusional. Of course Irving would claim this was baloney, and when Hallström ends a scene where Irving is talking to a character only to show that he is talking to himself, you can’t help but agree; it’s the sledgehammer subtlety of a director who has no ability to let his audience use their imaginations (see also Ron Howard).


The problems with the picture are two-fold, and mostly gather steam during the second half as Irving’s deceit is subject to greater and greater scrutiny. On the one hand, the conflict between the conspiring trio is quite understandable. It needs more juice than just the grand adventure Irving describes the events as, because there should be a level of tension; otherwise, it’s all too easy. But he’s right about Edith being rendered dull; Harden can’t do anything with her, and she becomes a one-note cypher (as is Julie Delpy’s manipulative bit-on-the-side). Molina is great fun, and steals a number of scenes early on with his nervous interjections before bemused executives (“He offered me a prune”). But later, Suskind’s backing-out and the countermeasures taken by Irving feel overly contrived; it’s the sort of thing that could only work if the director was clever enough to comment on the fakery of the contrivance itself. It’s a sequence that starkly focuses in on Irving’s sociopathic qualities, which may be partly why he wasn’t so keen on it, but it does so unnaturally.


The other issue is with Hughes himself. Irving has dismissed the package of files that arrives unsolicited at Gere’s door as a complete invention. That may be so, in which case Wheeler deserves credit for a stroke of narrative genius that outdoes his subject. Once you introduce the idea that the fakery is tarnished with unwitting truth, you’re left with a hall of mirrors of distortion and uncertainty. The suggestion that Hughes would allow the book to proceed for his own ends is immensely attractive; the way in which it is subsequently linked to the Watergate break-ins, just after the threat to both Hughes – through the dropping of the TWA lawsuit - and Tricky Dicky – through ultimately preventing the publishing of a book that might damage him – has subsided, renders the billionaire a supreme arch-manipulator and knocks Irving’s small-time con into the shade. Which seems, in the context of creating a context for Irving, wholly appropriate. Irving is, after all, a man who has dined out for decades on the strength of a lie, yet gets stroppy over others not telling it just right.


It’s in the sequences involving McGraw-Hill that the picture works best. The cast are a treat to watch, from Hope Davis as the editor who began missing meetings with Irving now finding herself pouncing on his publishing goldmine, to Stanley Tucci and Zelijko Ivanek as piqued and derisive editors respectively. Irving’s spinning of the prune scene is a lovely moment, where we are as captivated as the attentive execs. Later, as the haranguing becomes too much, Irving comes right back at them, knowing he has nothing to lose, and his triumph is a delight. In part the pleasure is seeing this elite hoodwinked, but it’s also the hilarity of so-called expert opinion being completely undermined. Irving fakes Hughes’ handwriting. And they sign off on it. Later, after a close associate of Hughes has truth tested the finished autobiography, he congratulates the disbelieving Irving for writing the genuine article.


Gere, gimlet eyes keenly studying the terrain for how best to turn events to his advantage, is more alive here than he has been in years; he’s having some fun, which isn’t like him. Unfortunately, the make-up department aren’t doing him any favours with his wavy dyed hair. I kept expecting a flash-forward 20 years to explain why he looked so silly, and it never came. In general, there’s a failure to make this a believably ‘70s milieu; the daft wigs and hair and costumes look like they’ve been donned just for the picture (which again, might have worked if there wore a more self-reflexive tone; as it is, it just seems half-assed).


A defter hand might have drawn the threads out into something more encompassing, a statement on our general predilection for self-deception (Fincher perhaps, or Oliver Stone before he ran out of steam). Or, just in terms of the exuberance of Irving’s enterprise, I could see the Coens pulling this off with aplomb. But Hallström can never quite steer his ship away from the favoured territory of lightweight and undemanding. It still might be the best American film he’s made, though.

***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) Cheeseburger Film Sandwich . Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon . Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie . Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie , arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate t

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Wow. Asteroids are made of farts. Okay. I got it.

Greenland (2020) (SPOILERS) Global terror porn for overpopulation adherents as Gerard Butler and his family do their darnedest to reach the safety of a bunker in the titular country in the face of an imminent comet impact. Basically, what if 2012 were played straight? These things come to test cinemas in cycles, of course. Sean Connery struggled with a duff rug and a stack of mud in Meteor , while Deep Impact plumbed for another dread comet and Armageddon an asteroid. The former, owing to the combined forces of Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, was a – relatively – more meditative fare. The latter was directed by Michael Bay. And then there’s Roland Emmerich, who having hoisted a big freeze on us in The Day After Tomorrow then wreaked a relatively original source of devastation in the form of 2012 ’s overheating Earth’s core. Greenland , meanwhile, is pretty much what you’d expect from the director of Angel Has Fallen .

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.