Watching Richard Gere play the role of real-life huckster Clifford Irving in Lasse Hallström's The Hoax is a lot like watching him play flamboyant lawyer Billy Flynn in Chicago with the musical soundtrack turned off; his performance is all bluster, flop-sweat, and sly, cocksure grins, but in The Hoax, he does all his tap-dancing on the inside. In the early '70s, Irving concocted a scheme to write and sell a fraudulent biography of notorious billionaire Howard Hughes, who had been a well-guarded recluse for more than a decade. (Irving documented the events himself in his 1972 book The Hoax, which inspired the film.) As played by Gere, Irving is a mercurial, troubled man, equally prone to adulterous affairs and savage regrets, and driven by arrogant energy. When his publisher rejects his latest book, Irving hits on the Hughes plot as a sure-fire path out of penury, gambling that Hughes is too much of a hermit to notice the fraud, let alone step forward to denounce it.
He promptly hauls his buddy Dick Susskind (played by Alfred Molina) in on the bid, though it's telling that he does all the talking while pushing Susskind to take all the most serious risks, from breaking into a Department Of Defense file room to steal Hughes-related government contracts to illegally photographing Library Of Congress records. The scam that follows is half fast-talking con job, half energetic research project, as the two men cobble together a plausible book while Irving attempts to convince detractors and nay-sayers that his project is not only authentic, but worthy of a record-setting contract deal.
Industry workhorse Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat) gives the proceedings his usual accomplished, shallow gloss, but he also keeps the pace lively and the proceedings tense, in ways that recall Catch Me If You Can's slick but absorbing character dodges. Eventually, though, the film slips down the rabbit hole, as Irving's attempts to forge Hughes' voice and character lead him to half-believe he is Hughes. The politics get complicated, the lines of reality are blurred, and the whole story veers into overheated A Beautiful Mind territory. But then, it never really felt like it was meant to be a true history. It's an accomplished potboiler entertainment, as calculated and clever as the stories Irving spins to stay afloat in the growing sea of his own lies.