Richard Gere, nearly unrecognizable with blackened hair and a fake nose, gives one of his very best performances as Clifford Irving, the huckster who won a million-dollar advance from McGraw-Hill in 1971 for writing an authorized biography of the notoriously reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes. The catch? Irving never met Hughes, a fact that only became known when the gazillionaire, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator, gave a telephone news conference to announce the hoax. Irving, who served two years for fraud, has faded from public view. But scams, pulled in the name of weapons of mass destruction or the paternity of Anna Nicole's baby, are the lingua franca of the new century.
Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom has a knack for American stories, including What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules. Working here with a script by William Wheeler, loosely and playfully based on Irving's own memoir, Hallstrom cleverly blends the details of Irving's hoax with the American need to believe the tallest of tales. When the film hints that Irving is being used by Hughes to blackmail Nixon into saving his struggling airline, we pant for the next details. Hallstrom and camera wizard Oliver Stapleton create a shadowy look that evokes the palpable tension that gripped us in Seventies-era conspiracy thrillers. But the film's mischievous wit benefits most from its this-just-in snap. We see how Irving's personal betrayals of his wife (Marcia Gay Harden), his mistress (Julie Delpy) and his best friend, the researcher Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina is a marvel of beleaguered humanity), prep him to con an entire nation.
Gere gives 'em the old razzle-dazzle with his roguish charm and sharp comic timing. The surprise is the unexpected feeling he brings to this challenging role. In one tling scene, Irving tapes an interview between himself and Hughes, playing both roles and giving Hughes the more sympathetic slant. That moment sums up what makes this whopper of a movie such a devilish and devastating satire: The art of the hoax is no longer being good at lying to other people, it's being a genius at lying to yourself.