Lest we imagine that the publishing industry went to hell only after J.T. Leroy and James Frey clambered onboard, here comes Lasse Hallström to remind us of a literary dustup emblematic of a much earlier era of rampant American mendacity. The Hoax parses the rise and fall of faker Clifford Irving — a stalled minor writer who shot to fame when he claimed to have been approached by the notoriously reclusive aviation billionaire Howard Hughes to write his memoirs — as a symptom of that other lying decade, the 1970s. Richard Nixon makes a few shifty guest appearances in grainy archival footage in The Hoax as a murky figure in Hughes’ memoirs, and by extension as the top-down polluter of a culture that, according to the movie, made Irving’s sensational 15 minutes possible. Though I can’t think of an American decade that was free of shysters, operators and runaway gluttons for money and power, The Hoax is strongest when it connects the dots between Irving, who’s played by a wonderfully dodgy Richard Gere, and a freshly corporatized book industry. In some of the film’s most delicious scenes, glassy-eyed McGraw-Hill editors (Hope Davis) and management types (Stanley Tucci, enunciating through contemptuously raised eyebrows) are seen trying to balance their skepticism toward Irving’s ludicrously transparent whoppers with their longing to sign up a massive best-seller.

Still, it seems a bit much to hang this entire paranoid age — Vietnam, Watergate, corporate greed, celebrity mania, pointy collars, you name it, they’re all bundled into The Hoax — on a man who cuts no more distinct a figure than does his president. William Wheeler, who met with Irving and based his own lavishly embroidered screenplay on the author’s post-prison memoir of the affair, found the man affable but “unreadable.” That’s the classic demeanor of the successful con man, who must be winning and elusive at the same time, and who’s always in control of the next move. Gere is a skilled actor with copious experience playing men of fishy motive, but his Irving doesn’t seem capable of pulling off the extravagant stunts that kept his seven-figure book deal with McGraw-Hill alive through successive bouts of doubt and suspicion.

Indeed, there’s something slack and nebbishy about this orange-haired upstart, even at the beginning, when, after publication of his new novel has been canceled, he bursts into the offices of his editor (Davis) to announce his new project. The schemes he hatches and hastily amends as necessary — pilfering the unpublished manuscript of Hughes’ embittered former right-hand man (Eli Wallach), phoning in a raspy Hughes voice from the Bahamas (Westchester County, to be precise) and gathering his increasingly skeptical publishers on a Manhattan roof to await Hughes’ arrival in a helicopter — are the panicky reactions of a man without a plan. What’s interesting and dangerous about Clifford is that, like all con artists, he’s also a man without a core. But the filmmakers want us to like him, sort of, and judge him, sort of. So they light the movie all wishy-washy for ambiguity, and invest this vaporous fraudster with the kind of guilt — about his serial betrayals of his friend and goodhearted accomplice (Alfred Molina) and his endlessly forgiving wife (Marcia Gay Harden) — that is the price he pays for continuing to be bad. The most colorful thing about 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 anything a bad mommy or daddy did. But there’s no other point of view either; instead, we get a fatal equivocation over whether to frame him as a caper or as an American tragedy. Watching The Hoax, I kept hankering for the antic joie de vivre of Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can, which wholly gave itself over to what we love about the con men who dare to slough off the daily grind and do it their way. They have style to burn, and they don’t give a damn.

THE HOAX | Directed by LASSE HALLSTRÖM | Written by WILLIAM WHEELER, based on the book by CLIFFORD IRVING | Produced by BOB YARI | Released by Miramax Films | Citywide

Click here to read Real Time With Clifford Irving, Scott Foundas' interview with the real man behind the hoax.

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