James Frey was a piker compared with Clifford Irving: the minor-league fibs of "A Million Little Pieces" are child's play next to the brilliant and almost successful fraud Irving perpetrated in 1971. Claiming to have exclusive interviews with the reclusive, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, Irving (who had, tellingly, previously written a book about art forger Elmyr de Hory called "Fake!") received enormous paychecks for writing "The Autobiography of Howard Hughes" with his associate and partner in crime Dick Suskind. In fact, he had never met Hughes, but his elaborate hoax was so convincing it fooled handwriting experts, and people who had known Hughes. And it had ramifications, according to the wonderfully tricky movie "The Hoax," that led all the way to Nixon's White House and Watergate.
Director Lasse Hallstrom, working from a deliciously smart screenplay by William Wheeler, takes off from Irving's own account of his audacious scam, published after he had spent several years in prison on various counts of fraud and forgery. But the filmmakers are not content to stick to the "facts" as recounted by the notoriously unreliable author, though a perfectly straightforward rendering of Irving's book "The Hoax" would make a dandy thriller. Employing a few fictional liberties themselves, plus research they conducted into the connections between the Hughes empire and the Nixon administration, they've produced a provocative and blackly comic portrait of a con artist who is ultimately a pawn in a much larger and more intricate conspiracy than even he can fabricate. The movie does a wonderful job capturing the volatile early '70s, when Vietnam War protests and anti-establishment fervor fed Irving's chutzpah—he could tell himself he was putting one over on The System. But "The Hoax" also resonates in our current media and political climate, where "truthiness" passes itself off as truth.
Richard Gere, his mug subtly altered by a little putty on the bridge of his nose, plays the fast-talking, devious, pill-popping, seductive Irving, and the role brings out the actor's very best. Gere's Irving is like a gifted Method actor who identifies so deeply with the role he's playing—Howard Hughes—that he's dangerously close to believing his own lies. He has to become Hughes to write him, and Hallstrom's movie takes a leap into expressionism as Irving's paranoid delusions begin to get the better of him. What's real and what isn't? Who is pulling the strings?
Irving is playing games not just with his editors and publishers at McGraw-Hill, but also with his co-conspirators, who include his jittery sidekick Suskind (hilariously played by Alfred Molina) and his Swiss-German artist wife, Edith (a transformed Marcia Gay Harden), who is still smarting over Irving's extracurricular affair with the actress Nina Van Pallandt (Julie Delpy), whom he continues to see while assuring his wife his straying days are over. Irving is a monster of mendacity, yet in spite of your better judgment you find yourself rooting for him to succeed, in no small part because of Gere's own powers of persuasion. Of course it is one of the movie's points that Irving's victims need to believe his lies: a Hughes autobiography is a potential gold mine for everyone involved.
The tale seems to liberate Gere from his own self-regarding mannerisms. It also seems to have energized Hallstrom ("My Life as a Dog," "The Cider House Rules"), who navigates the vertiginous mood swings—in which comedy and suspense, satire and shame are all mashed together—with breezy confidence. What Irving is pulling off is a brilliantly twisted improvisation, and what makes "The Hoax" so much fun to watch is the sensation of watching a master deceiver make it up as he goes along. Time after time we wonder how Irving is going to get out of the hole he's dug for himself, and just when you think he must throw up his hands and confess, he concocts an even more desperate whopper to prolong the charade.
"The Hoax" is the freshest, most surprising American movie so far in 2007, so it comes as a shock to learn that it's been sitting on the shelf for more than a year. This used to be a sign that a movie was a disaster. These days it may be a badge of honor: it often means that the marketing gurus—who are the true and cowardly soul of Hollywood—don't know how to sell a movie that doesn't neatly fit into a tried-and-true category. This quicksilver movie scrambles our notions of heroes and villains, the real and the imaginary, the true and the false. And it does so with a smile on its roguish face. A movie this fun—and this smart—shouldn't be a hard sell at all.