There's a fleet-footed exuberance to The Hoax that suits the film just perfectly. Although based on a true story, the picture displays a freewheeling style that's more attuned to the rhythms of Richard Gere's central performance than any sort of somber, historical veracity.
Gere stars as Clifford Irving, the author who in the early 1970s convinced (at least for a while) the bigwigs at McGraw-Hill that he had landed an exclusive interview with reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes (himself the subject of Martin Scorsese's The Aviator three years ago). There was absolutely no truth to the boast, but with dollar signs dancing in their eyes, Shelton Fisher (Stanley Tucci, socko in a small role) and the publishing house's other decision makers accepted Irving's flimsy evidence as proof that he was on the level, a decision that resulted in the company handing over an incredible sum for publishing rights.
Gere has always excelled at playing amoral yet charming creeps, and in the role of Clifford Irving, he strikes gold once again; while halfhearted attempts on the part of scripter William Wheeler (adapting Irving's own tell-all book) to imbue the character with some degree of sympathy fall flat, Gere is skilled enough to nevertheless add some complex shadings to the role. Also memorable is Alfred Molina, sweating up a storm as Irving's nervous accomplice in the scam.
With its allusions to Richard Nixon and Watergate, Hallstrom and Wheeler firmly establish the time frame of their film. Yet if anything, the movie feels more like 2007 than 1971, given that fraudulent writers (like Stephen Glass) have proliferated in recent years and "identity theft" has become a commonplace expression. The Hoax might be intended as a cautionary tale, but in today's cynical climate, it stands a better chance of emerging as an inspirational training film.
Unless he continues to keep his eye out for innovative fare like Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell might be entering the fill-in-the-blank part of his career.
As in "Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver! Now that's funny!" Or "Will Ferrell as a basketball player! Now that's funny!" (See next year's Semi-Pro.) Or, in the case of Blades of Glory, "Will Ferrell as a figure skater! Now that's funny!" If the sports angle keeps up, we'll soon be catching Ferrell in comedies about volleyball, archery and even badminton. And by then, it's safe to say that it will no longer be a laughing matter.
Even Blades of Glory shows the strains of the comedian trying to keep himself contained in a box. His Chazz Michael Michaels, a coarse sex addict who's also an unlikely skating champion, mines the same comic territory as most Ferrell performances ranging from Talladega Nights to Anchorman and beyond. Since Ferrell is only playing variations on a theme, it's costar Jon Heder (of Napoleon Dynamite fame) who provides most of the modest chuckles. As Jimmy MacElroy, a rival figure skater who's forced by circumstances to team with Chazz to become the first male-male figure skating team in history, Heder plays up his character's delicate traits to the point that they offer a pointed contrast to Ferrell's predictable boorishness. "You're like a 15-year-old girl," taunts Chazz, "only not hot."
After a sluggish beginning, the laughs pick up during the midsection, and I appreciate that Queen's Flash Gordon theme plays a prominent role in the finale. Otherwise, this is yet one more assembly line comedy by the Ferrell-Stiller-Vaughn-Wilsons conglomerate (Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are AWOL here, but Ben Stiller serves as a producer and Luke Wilson pops up in a tiny role).
For a similar film that offers more laughs by taking it to the limit, rent the Farrelly brothers' 1996 bowling gem Kingpin. Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid and especially Bill Murray offer moments of lunacy so inspired, they make Ferrell in Blades of Glory look like a visitor to the comedy genre.