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

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

One day you will speak and the jungle will listen.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)
(SPOILERS) The unloved and neglected Jungle Book movie that wasn't Disney’s, Jungle Book: Origins was originally pegged for a 2016 release, before being pushed to last year, then this, and then offloaded by Warner Bros onto Netflix. During which time the title changed to Mowgli: Tales from the Jungle Book, then Mowgli, and finally Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The assumption is usually that the loser out of vying projects – and going from competing with a near $1bn grossing box office titan to effectively straight-to-video is the definition of a loser – is by its nature inferior, but Andy Serkis' movie is a much more interesting, nuanced affair than the Disney flick, which tried to serve too many masters and floundered with a finale that saw Mowgli celebrated for scorching the jungle. And yes, it’s darker too. But not grimdarker.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

Don’t you break into like, a billion homes a year?

The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
(SPOILERS) Tis the season to be schmaltzy. Except, perhaps not as insufferably so as you might think. The Christmas Chronicles feels very much like a John Hughes production, which is appropriate since it's produced by Chris Columbus, who was given his start as a director by Hughes. Think Uncle Buck, but instead of John Candy improving his nieces and nephew's lives, you've got Kurt Russell's Santa Claus bringing good cheer to the kids of the Pierce household. The latter are an indifferent duo, but they key here is Santa, and Russell brings the movie that all important irrepressible spark and then some.

A steed is not praised for its might, but for its thoroughbred qualities.

The Avengers Season 3 Ranked - Worst to Best
Season Three is where The Avengers settles into its best-known form – okay, The Grandeur that was Rome aside, there’s nothing really pushing it towards the eccentric heights it would reach in the Rigg era – in no small part due to the permanent partnering of Honor Blackman with Patrick Macnee. It may not be as polished as the subsequent incarnations, but it has the appeal of actively exploring its boundaries, and probably edges out Season Five in the rankings, which rather started to believe its own hype.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

You counselled him and then he shot himself.

First Reformed (2017)
(SPOILERS) This uneven at best Roman Catholic – I know, it concerns a protestant church, but who are we trying to kid? – eco-guilt picture from Paul Schrader that has been hailed as his best in years, which it probably is, but these things are relative. Schrader has made, for the first hour or so, an engrossing study of faith, doubt and despair, but his choices after that, particularly during the last half hour, undo much of the effort.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…