The two-bit distortions in A Million Little Pieces that landed squirming memoirist James Frey on Oprah Winfrey's couch of shame last year were chump change compared with the million-dollar lies served up by Clifford Irving some 35 years ago. Back in 1971, Irving, an unexceptional novelist known best, if at all, for his biography of an art forger, dazzled the fancy New York publishing world with the memoirs he wrung from top secret interviews with legendarily reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Only the author never met Hughes. Not once. He made the whole book up, served a prison sentence of 14 months, then went on to write his own memoir about making up the memoir.
Silver-foxy Richard Gere (pictured with Hope Davis) is not the first suave Buddhist I'd think of to play dark, curly, Jewish New Yorker Irving, but the quick-witted Gere who schemes and fast-talks his way around the snappy, plugged-in scam saga The Hoax is like no Gere I've seen before. (For that matter, creator of Chocolat-coated Hollywood dessert movies Lasse Hallström isn't the first filmmaker I'd think of to exhibit such adult zing, but this is the best thing the director has done since What's Eating Gilbert Grape.) Permed and dyed to verisimilitude, a bit pouchy of build and packed into jackets that mean to look sharp but only look eager to look sharp, Gere takes to the outlandish liar he plays with what might well be called impassioned honesty.
There's no understanding what made Irving do what he did or, indeed, how he managed to get as far as he did how he sold his brazen blarney to a publisher as upstanding as McGraw-Hill, how he forged Hughes' handwriting, or how he bedazzled and bullied his devoted, needy best friend Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina, reaching greatness in the portrayal of pathos) into participating as researcher and henchman. But Gere is terrific at suggesting the kind of addictive cocktail of excitement, panic, chutzpah, creativity, and naked hunger for fame and megabucks that might inspire such big, fat lies. Marcia Gay Harden, for her part, uses spare strokes to paint a vivid picture of Irving's Swiss-German wife, Edith, who was in on the money shenanigans. Julie Delpy plays Irving's sometime mistress Nina Van Pallandt, who would (in a neat bit of Buddhist karma) later go on to appear opposite the young Richard Gere in American Gigolo.
True facts about Irving's falsehoods are only the starting point here. The Hoax expands and darkens, in the sophisticated script by under-the-radar screenwriter William Wheeler, to comment on the deception and power games that defined Watergate-era America. Don't forget, while this literary funny business was afoot, the Vietnam War was dragging on under the auspices of a paranoid president who couldn't shake off the unflattering nickname ''Tricky Dick.'' There are lies or at least fictions, fantasies, and conjectures about Irving thrown into The Hoax. But the movie's aim is true.