Just before President Nixon's infamous Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, a washed-up writer named Clifford Irving made a sudden name for himself as the co-author of Howard Hughes' autobiography. As the title of The Hoax suggests, there was a little more to the story than that, as the eccentric billionaire neither wrote nor endorsed the book. Irving, slyly rendered here by Richard Gere, boasts a certain sleazy charm, and never fails to impress with his quick wit and charisma as he greases his way out of one sticky situation after another. Starting with a relatively innocent boast to his agent that his next project is the "most important book of the century," Irving enlists his friend and longtime research collaborator Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) to help him research the reclusive billionaire. Their hope, in all its absurd naiveté, was that Hughes' hermitic nature and concurrent $137 million anti-trust lawsuit would ensure his silence. But, as all lies do, Irving's initial fib gradually snowballs, ultimately crashing downhill with an avalanche of media coverage, mail fraud, check fraud, fake IDs, theft of classified documents--and the publication of evidence linking Nixon to an unexplained $205,000 gift from a Hughes corporation.
Based on Irving's own ex post facto account of the scam (he had plenty of time to write in prison), the often funny, occasionally clever Hoax works best when it cools off the melodrama, opting for chuckles rather than choke-ups. Particularly helpful in this regard is the excellent Molina, whose hijinks and banter with Gere carry some of the slack that the middling premise and rough-spun plot leave behind. Amid that slack is a subplot involving Irving's extramarital affair, which occupies little screen time and even less of our interest. Another of screenwriter William Wheeler's misfires is a barely coherent venture into Irving's supposed psychosis, which feels inorganic and fictitious (and probably is). As a tragicomedy the movie succeeds, but as a psychological exposition it's a mess.
Given Irving's less-than-perfect credibility, the historical authenticity of his memoir is decidedly suspect. Ironically enough, Irving himself condemned this adaptation's accuracy, reportedly claiming, "I had nothing to do with this movie, and it had very little to do with me." Indeed, the cost of deception proves a major theme, as each of Irving's lies only buries him deeper. But swaggering writers prove no more fallible than presidents in this regard, as director Lasse Hallström never hesitates to express in his climax revolving around dear old Nixon and his own series of hoaxes. Luckily for this Hoax, there's been no shortage of White House scandals recently, creating a pleasant (if inflated) sense of relevance. Timing is everything.