Pressured by mounting debt and the last-minute cancellation of his latest book, writer Clifford Irving dreams up an idea that he hopes will reward him with a healthy advance and maybe even a bestseller. He convinces publisher McGraw-Hill that he's been exchanging handwritten notes with the billionaire Howard Hughes and has the rights to a tell-all autobiography of the moneyed recluse.
McGraw-Hill begins slavering over the possible fortune such a book could generate, but execs worry about Cliff's veracity. So the spurious scribe, with the help of his friend, Dick Susskind, illegally copies documents from the Library of Congress, steals files from the Department of Defense and forges notes from Hughes to shore up his ruse. Then, using Hughes' hermit-like lifestyle to his advantage, Cliff claims to be the man's only confidant and boldly threatens to take the book to another publisher unless he receives a million-dollar advance. He gets it.
As obstacles pop up along the book's pathway to publication, Cliff's lies become more and more audacious. Truth and fiction mingle into a mudslide that threatens to not only end the author's marriage and hobble a mighty publishing house, but, potentially, destroy a sitting U.S. president.
Dick tries to support his friend and attempts to hold him accountable. (Unfortunately, he's manipulated by Cliff and finds himself sucked into the scheme.) Cliff's wife Edith also makes an effort to believe in her husband and hold out hope for their marriage, in spite of past infidelities.
Edith urges her husband, "You're exhausted from your lies. Tell the truth." And indeed, The Hoax deals extensively with the traps that lies spring. But you won't find a simple Sunday school lesson here—so I'll deal with both sides of the story in my "Conclusion."
It is stated that the Hughes autobiography will "sell more copies than the Bible." Cliff receives a box of important files that he believes were sent to him by Hughes himself and says, "This is like the Torah, sent down from God."
Cliff runs into an old flame at a party and, even though he steels himself to stay faithful to his wife, ends up meeting later with the woman in a hotel room. We see them the morning after (they kiss); she is dressed in a revealing, gossamer-thin negligee that's open in front, exposing her breasts. To keep Dick from spilling the beans, Cliff gets him drunk and hires a girl to sleep with him. Dick stumbles downstairs the next day dressed in boxer shorts and a T-shirt.
Dick talks of a children's book about Richard the Great that he's writing. He says it's a great story about war and sodomy.
Several men punch and subdue Cliff, kidnapping him. Later, as a final warning, the men throw him off a hotel balcony. He falls several stories into the pool below. They drag him out of the pool and knock him out with a blow to the face. We see his bloodied nose afterward. During one of their verbal arguments, Edith throws a notebook at Cliff and hits him in the head. During one depressive moment, Cliff shoots a harpoon gun pinning a picture of himself and his wife to the wall.
Crude or Profane Language
The f-word is used close to 30 times and the s-word around 10. Jesus' name is misused about 10 times and God is tangled up with "d--n" on five occasions. "A--," "b--ch" and "h---" make a number of appearances as well. There are several crude references to male and female genitalia.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Cliff, Dick and Edith, among others, smoke in several scenes. Cliff and Dick share mixed drinks at a bar. They also drink beer in their hotel room, and Dick drinks straight from mini alcohol bottles on a plane fight. Dick is drinking with two women and Cliff orders another round of doubles in an effort to get him drunk. As the pressure mounts, Cliff drinks heavily and, at one point, takes some pills from a prescription bottle.
Other Negative Elements
Either due to a mental breakdown or drugs and alcohol, Cliff hallucinates a conversation with one of Howard Hughes' subordinates. Cliff's manipulative lies consume him to the point where he can no longer bring himself to tell the truth, even to the people he loves.
Remember when your mom warned you that if you told a lie you'd end up telling three more just to cover up the first? Well, Mom's fib-filled scenario is the heart and soul of The Hoax, a deftly-handled flick (directed by The Cider House Rules and Chocolat's Lasse Hallström) that's based on real-life events from the early '70s.
Hoax depicts our world as a place where everybody lies to everyone, including themselves. In fact, the more outrageous and completely implausible the whoppers, the more people believe them. The film's inclusion of R-rated sex, alcohol abuse and foul language do more than just get in the way, of course, but moviegoers eventually see the bad guy get his comeuppance here. Cliff and everyone he touches lose everything due to his compulsive lying—a very clear illustration of the biblical statement that "he who tells lies will perish."
However, the film also whispers the deceptive addendum, "... unless he's really good at it." Howard Hughes, a character we never actually see but whose presence is everywhere, pulls all the "right" deceitful strings and ends up with exactly what he wants. One scene in particular symbolically points to his latent omnipotence: Cliff is speaking before cheering peers about the splashy release of his new book. Our view is framed perfectly to show a huge photo of a young, handsome Hughes peering over the writer's shoulder. His flinty, intelligent gaze grabs our attention and it's easy to imagine Hughes as a giant puppeteer guiding the movements of the hapless speaker. Which, we later learn, is precisely what's happening.
The underlying meaning is subtle but clear. The Machiavellian pros, the real kingmakers, they know how to make chicanery work. You walk out thinking, "That Richard Gere guy deserved what he got, but Hughes sure was something, wasn't he?"