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Stranger Than Nonfiction

Richard Gere proves all writers lie in this account of stealing Howard Hughes' life story.

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The first thing to know about "The Hoax" is that it has only one library scene. This is both a surprise and a relief, because the movie is a fictionalized account of how Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) managed to write and publish an autobiography of Howard Hughes, based entirely on research and fabrication.

In real life, the research was handled by friend Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina). In this half-serious, half-comic dramatization, the two are more like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in tweed. There is one ridiculous but funny scene in which Irving distracts an associate of Hughes while Susskind dashes off to Xerox the manuscript of a biography the associate has written.

For a philosophical look at the story, you might want to pick up Orson Welles' underrated "F for Fake." But "The Hoax" is an entertainer. It looks you straight in the eye and promises the strict, encapsulated truth about a phony. It's a tall tale, but at least it's a good one.

The movie begins in the early 1970s, when Hughes was the richest man in America and Irving was just getting his latest novel rejected. Director Lasse Hallström, working from an excellent script by William Wheeler, pegs Irving early as an all-around poser, bluffing his way into a fancy Mercedes the day he loses his furniture to creditors, and hobnobbing with the social elite the night he learns his novel is a flop. Desperate, Irving storms into the offices of McGraw-Hill to tell them he'll be announcing the most important book of the 20th century later that week at a bowling alley. It's all bluster. Secretly he doesn't have any idea what it's going to be about.

Hallström gives much preference to the drama of his story. Rather than learning what Irving might have been thinking at the time, we see him pulling out his hair over the idea process — bios of Charlemagne and Churchill among other candidates come to mind as the idea for a work on Hughes nudges his subconscious from the covers of various newsmagazines. In reality, Irving had published "Fake!" the biography of the famed Matisse forger Elmyr de Hory. Though mentioned in the movie a few times in passing, no doubt "Fake!" had at least as much an impact on his decision to become an impostor as we are meant to believe the media storm around Hughes did.

Putting Irving under the spell of Hughes has at least one benefit. In many ways Hughes is clearer to us here than in Martin Scorsese's flattering "The Aviator," even though physically we never get any closer to him than Irving does. We see Hughes in period photography and hear him on recordings, but Hallstrom really makes us feel him by the way he is not there, or rather invisibly there. Smartly, he carves Hughes out of the negative. Like a black hole, the thing at the center is obscured, but we can gauge it by the way the outer universe shivers at its touch.

Despite its drive to entertain at all costs, "The Hoax" has a lot to say about the nature and effect of lies. By the end, all the exaggerations, white lies and outright falsehoods have piled up to the point of admiration. In the process we see how victims often aid their manipulators. When Hughes first tries to refute Irving, Irving convinces the execs at McGraw-Hill and Life magazine it is simply the rantings of an eccentric, an idea they not only accept but also amplify. Later, when Hughes decides to use Irving rather than fight him, Irving manages to convince himself they are working together.

Gere, for his part, gives a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of a man we're not completely comfortable liking. Irving's chutzpah is admirable, but he's dishonest to the point of being a completely human character. One dark scene late in the film captures him being especially un-Hollywood. By this time the game is up. The house of cards is coming down, and Irving knows he will soon face the courts and possible jail time. In the midst of this he sits with his wife (Marcia Gay Harden), who is about to leave him over his latest infidelity. She just wants Irving to come clean, so she can leave knowing the truth for once. Irving takes a deep breath, looks her in the eye and gives it to her straight.

If you've watched this movie up to now, and wonder what he'll say, you haven't been paying attention. (R) 115 min. **** S


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