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MOVIE REVIEW

The writer who took the publishing world for a ride

In "The Hoax," Richard Gere (right) and Alfred Molina play best friends and co-charlatans. (Ken Regan/Miramax Films)

In "The Hoax," Richard Gere goes for something different. His hair is dark, thick, and wavy. The moping I usually associate with his acting is gone. So is the smugness I usually assume he mistakes for charm. He's in his late 50s, and only now is he really hitting his stride as a performer. Here, Gere seems as born again as he did during the musical numbers in "Chicago." In fact, the only thing missing from "The Hoax" might be a couple of songs. It's that breezy and fleet a movie.

Gere plays Clifford Irving , the scandalous real-life writer who, in 1971, convinced McGraw-Hill to publish his " authorized autobiography " of wacko billionaire Howard Hughes . At the start of director Lasse Hallström's film, Irving is riding high. The company just agreed to publish a novel of his, and he speeds through a blur of scenes, spending the money. Then persnickety senior editor Andrea Tate (Hope Davis ) informs him that the publisher is stopping the presses after one critic calls the book third-rate Philip Roth .

Irving's crushed, but undeterred, barging in on Tate at work and announcing that he's writing the "book of the century." The three yellow-tablet sheets he gives to her are hand written letters from Hughes, explaining, in part, that he wants Irving to tell his story.

None of this is true. Irving forged the letters and has never spoken to Hughes (no one has). But, sensing a blockbuster, Tate and her bosses proceed, anyway, moving past their initial skepticism into a state of bliss known to profiteers as "ka-ching ! " and eventually cutting Irving (and Hughes) a check for a million dollars.

What follows is an exuberant farce that Hallström, screenwriter William Wheeler , cinematographer Oliver Stapleton , and editor Andrew Mondshein keep simmering by interweaving comic suspense. When will somebody figure out that this man is a dodger and his book is a fake?

Gradually, of course. But as the noose tightens around Irving, it's his best friend and co-charlatan, Richard "Dick" Suskind (Alfred Molina ), who does all the sweating. These two fall into one illegal, unethical predicament after the next (photographing government documents, stealing classified files, running off to photocopy a Hughes insider's manuscript), and the movie has them bumble from scene to scene like a mutually neurotic Martin and Lewis .

It's undeniably obvious to us that Irving and Suskind are in way over their heads. But Tate and eventually the largely resistant company president (Stanley Tucci) see what they want to see. At some point, Irving says Hughes has promised to drop by the publisher's offices but needs the place customized per his obsessive demands. Carpet is ripped up, windows covered. It's hilarious watching Tate and her staff race around, breathlessly making the arrangements. It's also extremely sad. We know they're being had. But in the early 1970s, the physical materialization of Howard Hughes would have been a magical event.

"The Hoax" has something in common with "The Illusionist " and "The Prestige": It's also about a magician's hunger to get away with a ruse. Irving, who is still very much alive, exploited McGraw-Hill's desperation to be wowed. That lust for a good duping was the subject of Orson Welles's enormously clever 1974 documentary "F for Fake," in which the director considered the art of chicanery in part by observing a sharply preserved Irving. For Welles's camera, he was the cool, possessed, and kind of sexy author of a book called "Fake! ," about the notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory. (Gere looks almost every bit like him but plays down Irving's aristocratic air.)

Smartly written as it is, Hallström's movie isn't as assured as Welles's. The film gets bogged down in its final third with some conspiratorial speculation involving Hughes and the Nixon administration. There are also bland asides with Julie Delpy as Nina van Pallandt , the Danish baroness-chanteuse and Irving's mistress. She seems like a figment, particularly because Irving's testy German wife (Marcia Gay Harden ) is such a concrete force of (heavily accented) nature. My favorite image in the film is the sight of Harden wearing two wigs at once.

She, Tucci, Davis, and especially Molina are so good they almost excuse the film's lapses. Why is Molina the best-kept secret in movies after all these years? His apprehensiveness in this film is, by turns, funny and poignant, and he brings real comedy out of Gere in a way no actor ever has.

Comedy, of course, is what keeps "The Hoax" interesting. The filmmakers understand what Jonathan Demme captured in 1980's "Melvin and Howard " but Martin Scorsese , in "The Aviator," his own Hughes biography, could not: On screen, Howard Hughes is only as compelling as the men who make him up.

Wesley Morris can be reached atwmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

'Related'

The Hoax

Directed by: Lasse Hallström

Written by: William Wheeler , adapted from Clifford Irving's memoir

Starring: Richard Gere , Alfred Molina , Marcia Gay Harden , Hope Davis , Stanley Tucci

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 114 minutes

Rated: R (language)

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