The subject is the world-shaking con an unsuccessful writer named Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) ran on some supposedly sharp cookies in the highest echelons of Manhattan publishing. Irving persuaded McGraw-Hill and Life magazine that ultra-reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes had selected him to transcribe his memoirs. It's pure balderdash, a desperate improvisation by a glib-talker who's perennially one jump ahead of the repo men. But the epic audacity of Irving's scam, the quicksilver way he weaves imaginary and accidental real-life details into beguiling patterns, and the legendary self-isolation of his supposed subject all conspire to keep the fiction afloat ... for a while.
This story isn't new to cinema, though few reviewers seem aware of that. In 1973 Orson Welles told it as part of F for Fake, a kaleidoscopic meditation on art, forgery, and the slipperiness of media, in which the real-life Irving was a semi-witting participant. But there's no need to beat up on The Hoax for being inferior to that postmodern masterpiece. Hallström and a deft cast do a killer job on the skyscraper corporate world where there are always more people in the room than there are useful purposes for them to serve (see especially Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci, and Zjelko Ivanek); Marcia Gay Harden summons up a daft Viking serenity as spouse Edith Irving, a.k.a. "Helga R. Hughes"; and Alfred Molina rates a supporting Oscar nod for his balletic suspension between bemusement and panic attack as Dick Suskind, Irving's researcher accomplice and conscience-in-default. As for the con artist in chief, Richard Gere dials back the narcissism of previous performances to limn a schmuck just suave enough to seduce even himself. --Richard T. Jameson