Lest we imagine that the publishing industry went to hell only after James Frey and J.T. Leroy clambered on board, here comes Lasse Hallström to remind us of a literary dustup emblematic of an earlier nadir for American mendacity. The Hoax parses the rise and fall of faker Clifford Irving -- a writer who shot to fame by claiming reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes approached him to write his memoirs -- as a symptom of that other lying decade, the 1970s.
The Hoax is strongest when it connects Irving, (a wonderfully shifty Richard Gere) to a freshly corporatized book industry, where glassy-eyed management types (including a contemptuous Stanley Tucci) are seen trying to balance skepticism for Irving's ludicrous whoppers with their longing for a massive best-seller.
Richard Nixon makes a few guest appearances in archival footage as a murky figure in Hughes's memoirs and as the top-down polluter of a culture that made Irving's sensational 15 minutes possible. Still, it seems a bit much to hang this entire paranoid age -- Vietnam, Watergate, you name it -- on a man no more charismatic than his president. William Wheeler, who met Irving and based his screenplay on the author's post-prison memoir, found the man affable but "unreadable." That's the classic demeanor of the successful con man. Although Gere has copious experience playing men of fishy motive, his Irving doesn't seem capable of pulling off the extravagant stunts that kept a seven-figure book deal alive through successive bouts of doubt and suspicion. There's something nebbishy and desperate about this orange-haired upstart. His schemes seem like the panicky reactions of a man without a plan: pilfering the unpublished manuscript of Hughes' former right-hand man (Eli Wallach), phoning -- in a raspy Hughes voice -- from "the Bahamas" (Westchester County), and gathering his increasingly disbelieving publishers on a Manhattan rooftop to await the hermit's arrival in a helicopter.
Like all con artists, Irving is a man without a moral core, which is what makes him seductive, dangerous, and prone to betray those around him, including his good-hearted accomplice (Alfred Molina) and his endlessly forgiving wife (Marcia Gay Harden). But the filmmakers can't commit to a full-blooded scoundrel. They want us to like Clifford -- sort of. So they invest this fraudster with guilt about his serial betrayals -- the price he pays for continuing to be bad. The most colorful thing about Gere's Irving is his dream life, which makes him no different from the rest of us.
To its credit, The Hoax isn't glib -- it doesn't chalk up Irving's moral vacuum to a bad mommy or daddy. But there's no other point of view either; the film fatally equivocates over whether to frame him as a criminal or an American tragedy. I found myself hankering for the joie de vivre of Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, which gave itself over to what we love about con men: They have style to burn, and they don't give a damn.