It’s hard to go wrong with material like “The Hoax,” based on Clifford Irving’s account of how he fooled publishers, the press and the public by creating a bogus “autobiography” of Howard Hughes in the early 1970s.
Deftly resurrecting some of his “Chicago” razzle dazzle, Richard Gere plays Irving as a scam artist so resourceful no one can resist his most outlandish fictions. At several points in the movie, Irving seems cornered, crushed, close to confessing that everything’s been a lie. For a few seconds, he looks blank and defeated.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Gere improvises an explanation — usually a shameless whopper — and his crinkled face suddenly becomes animated, as if possessed by the spirit of invention. The apparent moment of truth, it turns out, was merely a speed bump on Irving’s daring path to deception.
He couldn’t do it without his gang of enablers, of course. Marcia Gay Harden makes the most of her scenes as Irving’s neglected wife, Edith, using a thick, hard-to-place accent to suggest that larceny is in her heart. Alfred Molina is believably ambivalent as his best friend, Dick Suskind, who doesn’t protest quite enough and becomes his accomplice in crime.
Julie Delpy playfully fills the role of Irving’s mistress, Nina Van Pallandt, an actress who appeared in Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” around the same time Irving was pretending to channel Hughes. Eli Wallach is briefly amusing as Hughes’ former CEO, and the always reliable Stanley Tucci delivers another priceless portrait of a fidgety executive.
Hope Davis brings her gift for take-no-prisoners caricature to the heavily fictionalized role of Irving’s editor, who is just as full of promises and nonsense as her client. Indeed, these two deserve each other — or at least another movie together. Whether they’re gushing or fighting or making up, Gere and Davis create a relationship that’s more vital than anything else in the picture.
The director, Lasse Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules”), and his frequent cinematographer, Oliver Stapleton (“Casanova”), smoothly handle the mixture of fact and fantasy in William Wheeler’s script, which is loosely based on Irving’s memoir. If the result is sometimes confusing, that’s partly the point. By the time Irving is sentenced to a relatively short jail term, does even he know what really happened?
Fact-based movies about famous impostors have become multiplex material lately. “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Color Me Kubrick” and “Catch Me If You Can” all play the same game as “The Hoax.” They sympathize with the con artist rather than his victims. Only “Shattered Glass” takes a more serious approach, emphasizing the less attractive consequences of clever fakery.
In the end, “The Hoax” does hint that the Hughes debacle may have led directly to the Watergate boondoggle as well as more recent scandals. The television clips, which capture the 1970s so well, even include a shot of President Nixon endorsing George Bush — the father, not the son. Gratuitous or relevant? You decide.