Those who pay attention to movie credits will immediately raise their radar when they see the following paradoxical run: "THE HOAX...Based on the actual events...Based on the book by Clifford Irving." The last time Irving made a significant screen appearance was at the hands of no less a giant than Orson Welles, in the classic, uncategorizable f-u-mentary F for Fake. In that film, a self-satisfied Irving discusses art forger Elmyr de Hory (about whom Irving wrote an biography) before taking the rap for bilking the country with a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes.
In a perm and die job, Richard Gere plays Irving in Lasse Hallström's The Hoax. In 1971, Irving bilks publisher McGraw-Hill into ponying up a record advance for the Hughes "autobiography," as told to Irving. Assuming the reclusive Hughes will never emerge to call him on it, Irving and research partner Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) make the entire book up out of whole cloth. Irving's supposed motivation is financial desperation, capped with a "eureka" moment of stepping on a Newsweek cover of Hughes. The Elmyr bio Fake, mentioned in passing, seems a much more credible catalyst for the impish impulse to make an art of fooling the world for cash.
Refreshingly, the film doesn't shrink from Irving's amorality. Rather, it explores a fascinating methodology, and the consequences of actions. Hallström cleverly visualizes Irving's thought process of cherry-picking facts from his memory and reassembling them into lies, constructing "truth" from truth. Gere also plays up Irving as an actor, a method actor who dons costume, greasepaint moustache, and bombastic speech patterns to channel Hughes. As Hallström tells it, Irving not only commits fraud and steps out on his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) with a socialite (Julie Delpy), but also directly damages Suskind's marriage. (For the record, Irving has both complained publicly of the liberties taken in the film and straight-facedly promoted it; follow the money...)
Wheeler allows Irving a small measure of redemption, but not before playing fast and loose with his "beautiful mind" by suggesting a mental crackup in the last days of the long con. More credible is Irving's enthusiasm at the enormity of his accomplishment: "The more outrageous I sound, the more convincing I sound!" Hallström succeeds in demonstrating how an exercise in deception intersected with uncomfortable realities of national insecurity, all the way to Nixon's Oval Office. Crowing of the power to change the culture by speaking with Hughes' voice, Irving sees in damning documents the chance to take down a corrupt President, shortly before Watergate would do the job.
Despite or perhaps because of its exaggerations, The Hoax makes for an involving yarn of willing access to powerful men and large sums of money. The film benefits from an idiosyncratic ensemble. Gere's not much like Irving, but he paints a convincing portrait in euphoric, rainmaker highs and dark, tortured lows. Eye-popping and flop-sweating, Molina overdoes it as Suskind, no doubt at Hallström's behest to the end of colorful comic relief. As the McGraw-Hill executives, Hope Davis and Stanley Tucci fetchingly try and fail to contain their greed.
Hallström delivers his best work in a while, with clever editing, and evocative period detail in his service; the tastefully grainy photography by Oliver Stapleton (The Grifters) contributes to the period feel. De Hory aside, The Hoax can only be seen as a very American story, told in a very American way. In Hallström's version of reality, the truth becomes indistinguishable from hyperbole, lies, and the charm of a raconteur. And as Welles's documentary instructed, the media is the message: what should we expect from a drama "based on the actual events" other than being taken for a ride? Just as Irving does, Hallström picks out a sexy convertible for the job.