When his latest book deal falls through, author Clifford Irving (Gere) offers his publishers the coup of the century - he will collaborate exclusively with Howard Hughes on the reclusive billionaires autobiography. How much can Irving spin before anyone
In the make-believe world of prank publishing, Howard Hughes’ autobiography sits on the shelves alongside the Hitler Diaries. By 1971, when Clifford Irving first pitched the idea to publishers McGraw-Hill, Hughes had become a mythical figure. The billionaire who had made a fortune in aviation and dabbled in Hollywood was now living as a hermit, addicted to prescription drugs and sealing himself off from the outside world in germ-free rooms. Anyone who could get his first-person perspective on a life filled with world records and movie stars would not merely have a scoop on their hands, but a document containing extremely hush-hush political secrets. Irving, an expert on art forgery, grabbed the opportunity (and an advance of $1 million) and nearly got away with it.It’s not spoiling anything to say that the bogus biog never made it into bookstores - the very fact that we’re watching a “based on a true story” film called The Hoax deflates any will-he-won’t-he suspense. Instead, we’re treated to a character study of a confident but increasingly desperate man, surrounded by a superb gallery of bit-players, from Irving’s nervous accomplice (Alfred Molina) to his paranoid wife (Marcia Gay Harden) to his anxious but trusting publishers (Hope Davis and Stanley Tucci). Unlike Catch Me If You Can, the biopic of fellow con man Frank Abagnale Jr., this never tries to recreate the intoxicating thrill of pulling off a fraud, although director Lasse Hallström does maintain a zippy pace. Ultimately, however, this is a serious business for Irving, with his reputation, marriage and sanity at stake. To this end, Gere digs deeper than he has done for many a year. In fact, you might have to go back to Sommersby - another case of the actor plying charm on the surface to aid deception underneath - to find him giving such a strong dramatic performance.Unfortunately, just as Gere pulls his character into more complex territory - adding an extra level of domestic dishonesty through Irving’s affair with a chic European (Julie Delpy) - the film loses its focus by introducing a wider dimension involving Nixon, Watergate and big-money bribes. Like Irving’s hoax, Hallström’s engrossing yarn only trips up at the final hurdle.
Gere proves that theres more to his range than ageing romantic leads in a multi-layered tale of public fraud and self-deception.