In interviews and public appearances, Richard Gere has repeatedly said that the most fun he has ever had on the job was playing Billy Flynn in Chicago.

Since then, he appears to have been trying to recapture that magic in his choice of projects. First he took another dancing role in the Hollywood remake of Shall We Dance? Now in The Hoax he stars as another exuberant, shameless huckster that Billy Flynn would surely recognize as a kindred spirit. Billy would probably like the movie, too, as it’s an eminently enjoyable yarn.

Gere portrays Clifford Irving, a writer who perpetrated a famous real-life hoax in 1971. Irving had previously authored several well-reviewed but poor-selling books, one of them a nonfiction profile of a busted art forger, ironically enough. Even so, his literary career was foundering until he told a lie to his publishers at McGraw-Hill. He claimed that he had been contacted out of the blue by the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, seeking Irving’s help writing his autobiography. As the film points out, Irving picked his target beautifully — Hughes was constrained from appearing in court by a previous lawsuit and was crazy enough that any public denial would be greeted with skepticism. Forged letters and legal documents supposedly in Hughes’ handwriting secured Irving a $765,000 advance from his publishers. Supported by enough genuine research for a straight-up biography, his fraudulent manuscript was serialized in the pages of Life magazine even while journalists and lawyers were working to expose it as a fake.

The first half of the film plays as breezy comedy, with Irving and researcher/co-conspirator Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) stealing documents out of the Pentagon and secretly photocopying a typewritten manuscript of a memoir by a very old Hughes associate (Eli Wallach). Gere looks nothing like Irving, but he captures the man’s ingenuity born of desperation. He and Molina establish some subtle and funny byplay in their scenes together, fabricating Hughes stories or bluffing their way through encounters with everyone from Hughes’ flunkies to McGraw-Hill’s brass. To replicate Hughes’ speech patterns for his biography Irving had to study his subject carefully, and screenwriter William Wheeler does a similar job capturing all these diverse characters and their modes of conversation.

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The movie does turn dark, as the hoax unravels and the strain of maintaining his web of lies leaves Irving with hallucinations about CIA agents breaking into his house and threatening him. Impressively, the movie doesn’t bog down or spin out of control. This is due to director Lasse Hallström, whose previous films I’ve often pilloried in these pages (Casanova, An Unfinished Life, The Shipping News) for being toothless and overly tasteful. Well, I can acknowledge when the man does good work. His filmmaking here is alert, playful, and neat enough to overcome its ballast in the form of the subplot about Irving’s crumbling marriage to a Swiss artist (Marcia Gay Harden). Thanks to the work by Hallström and Gere, The Hoax presses its dramatic points home without overdosing on self-importance or losing its energy and jaunty sense of fun.

 The Hoax
Starring Richard Gere and Alfred Molina. Directed by Lasse Hallström. Written by William Wheeler, based on Clifford Irving’s novel. Rated R.