August 1, 2007 5:34 pm

The bluster behind the bluff

He almost got away with it. Convincing the money-men he had the insights on a famous subject, he signed the deal, went off to produce the goods and came back with a nothing artfully disguised as an everything.

Yes, that’s director Lasse Hallström. (Previous convictions: The Shipping News, Casanova.) With The Hoax, his film about fraudster Clifford Irving – a small-time novelist who wooed his publisher with the promise of a ghosted autobiography of Howard Hughes, insisting the rich recluse was ready to tell all – Hallström promises us the moon but barely gets illumination or radiance even from his stars.

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Richard Gere could have been a wonderful Irving. Going for broke in the make-up room – crinkly hair, false nose – he speaks in an amped-up salesman’s rap that truly might convince a publisher he was a billionaire’s Boswell. But Gere has barely put a foot in the door of character development before Hallström and screenwriter William Wheeler fritter away the promise and the feistiness.

There are fatuous diffusions of the story into zeitgeist invocation, with Watergate dwelt on as a symptom of some supposed epochal seizure of duplicity across the western world. Good actors get mere stand-and-deliver cameos (Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci, Marcia Gay Harden). And Alfred Molina has a prominent, virtually meaningless role – since it is unexplained – as Irving’s sidekick. Where did this man come from? What exactly did he do?

We never get a background. A foreground and middle ground would have been nice too. But the whole film is a two-dimensional landscape, whose only stand-out features are the ghostly signposts all pointing one way, to cinema’s real deal on Irving. That was Orson Welles’s great F For Fake: not just about Clifford Irving but featuring him, not just about the art of hoaxing but about the “art” of it – the magic, the mythmaking, the resonance, the radical cheek.

There is more depth and sorcery in Sandhya Suri’s I for India, a mini-budget film proving that a talented director can lift himself up by the shoestrings. In this case, herself. A graduate from Britain’s National Film School, Suri has assembled her father’s home movie footage, added family interviews and created a picture of cultural displacement and Anglo-Indian rapprochement almost worthy of EM Forster.

The Suri family came to Darlington, northern England, in 1965 and sank roots into the immigrant community and local hospital, where dad was a consultant doctor. The cry of the homeland, orchestrated by clan elders, persuaded them back to India for a trial stay. But dad, setting up his medical shingle, was beaten to the punch by the traditional street quacks offering snake oils. They returned to England sadder and wiser, only to confront the further wrench of a daughter’s departure for Australia.

What is home? Is it where the heart is or the income? Should we let our emotions be blackmailed by parents or grandparents? Can the movie age, and now the e-mail era, close the spaces between continents? Touchingly, we see bits of the 8mm films with synched sound that Dad sent to India instead of letters. Vocal homilies and endearments are laid over the culturally universal glimpses of home life: we can all recognise the kids romping in the garden, the marriages, the graduations. Warm, insightful and tragicomic, I for India is a living scrapbook with a living warning about the messages we send each other across the world’s surface and how no amount of audiovisual backup will guarantee that those messages are better heard, seen or understood.

In Gandhi My Father another Indian family needs an agony aunt. Writer-director Feroz Abbas Khan has scoured the archives to learn about the Mahatma’s troubled relationship with his son Harilal (Akshaye Khanna). Growing old before our eyes – Gandhi (Darshan Jariwala) with a greying-then-balding wig, Hari with exploding beard and hair to denote his conversion to Islam – they battle each other from near and far for 135 minutes. Gandhi’s wife (Shefali Shah) suffers in the background, where Gandhi mostly kept her, though whenever allowed the chance Shah acts both men off the screen.

The movie is a long-distance trek with refreshment breaks. We grab here a cooling beaker of comedy – pompous colonial Brits are always good for a chuckle – and there an elixir of reality in a mother-son showdown drawn from the tap of genuine emotion rather than the keg of Bollywood panto-drama. A grudging respect has been earned by the film when it reaches the finishing tape, though the final moral is no more than the footsore truism that great leaders do not always make great fathers.

Running Stumbled is the best of the rest. Like I for India it’s another home diary, like Gandhi My Father another tale of parents and children coming apart. Portraits of dysfunctional American families are hard to resist. Think of Capturing the Friedmans and Tarnation. There is a special gusto – a seemingly missionary vandalism – in the way parents and children set out to damage each other in the boondocks USA. Here the painter father and drug-abusing stepmother of filmmaker John Maringouin have sunk so low he almost needs a bathysphere to reach them. Sometimes he seems to be filming in one. Did the camerawork need to be this murky and wobbly? Never mind. A hand-held delirium tremens has become the seal of
artistic honesty.

The house is a sty. Dad looks like Vincent Price mugged while attempting to play Salvador Dali. “Mom” is an aging moppet who slurs half-stoned over the family scrapbook. (There are subtitles for those who don’t speak Smashed.) The throwaway lines of dialogue belong in an audiovisual Surrealism exhibition. “When things get really bad I watch The Odyssey,” says Mom. Later: “You don’t see any problem with a chainsaw in the kitchen?” This is Gary Larson country, mixed with outtakes from Dostoevsky and Burroughs. It is hard to know where art begins and life, or living death, ends. But as a picture of a nuclear family approaching meltdown, it has a vicious watchability.

The runts of the week’s litter are Tales from Earthsea and Evan Almighty. The first is a Japanese anime by Goro Miyazaki, son of Hayao. But don’t expect a family-business masterpiece on the order of Spirited Away. This is routine sword, sorcery and sea-monster stuff, concluding with some boom-channel bromides about how love can save the world.

Evan Almighty is beyond Heaven’s help or anyone else’s. The sequel to Bruce Almighty stars Steve Carrell as a modern Noah told to build an ark by Morgan “God” Freeman. We wait for the pieties and sentimentalities between the laughs, but since there are no laughs we don’t know how long to wait.

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