Partners

AlfredÖMolina, left, plays Dick Suskind, a friend and co-conspirator to writer Clifford Irving (Richard Gere). (Ken Regan / Miramax Films)

'The Hoax' is a smart tale about a man who told tall tales.Compared to harsher words like "fraud," "cheat" and "swindle," "hoax" is a rather gentle term, a word that even has artistic implications. It's the word Clifford Irving used to title his book about one of the great deceptions of modern times: his nearly successful 1971 attempt to pass off his own manuscript as the much-coveted autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.

Now, in an act of true poetic justice, a smart new film called "The Hoax" goes Irving one better. Using his book as a starting point and taking advantage of Richard Gere's richest, most mature performance, it has taken off and run with the Hughes-Irving story. The result is an unexpectedly satisfying fantasia of reality and imagination, a meditation on the nature of lies and deception, on how we come to embrace not the truth but what it suits us to believe.

Sharply written by William Wheeler and gracefully directed by Lasse Hallström, "The Hoax" is a serious and amusing black farce that does without obvious heroes or villains, an engaging examination — based on facts but not tethered to them — of how a situation can start small and loose and grow colossally out of hand as it takes on a life of its own.

This is pretty much what happened in 1971, when Irving, using forged documents, so convinced New York publisher McGraw-Hill and Life magazine that he had Hughes' actual words in his hands that he was paid an advance of $750,000, real money in those days. Only a telephone news conference by Hughes himself, his first public statement in years and his last ever, derailed the proceedings.

Screenwriter Wheeler has started with these truths and frankly riffed on them to such an extent that Irving has told reporters that he sees the film as "a hoax about a hoax." But, like Irving himself, Wheeler is a great storyteller and "The Hoax" not only deals with the interesting psychological territory where ambition, resentment, delusion and self-interest combine, it also has Irving's gift for making us believe that what is fake is high-proof truth.

It's an indication of the quality of "The Hoax's" script that it has attracted such a strong cast, including Alfred Molina as Irving's friend and co-conspirator; Marcia Gay Harden as Irving's wife; Hope Davis as his loyal editor; Stanley Tucci as his publisher; Julie Delpy as his mistress; even the veteran Eli Wallach in a delicious cameo as Hughes' former associate Noah Dietrich.

"The Hoax" is also something of a rebirth for director Hallström, who has broken free of the earnestness of films like "Chocolat" and "The Cider House Rules" and returned to the affinity for raffish outsiders that marked his early "My Life as a Dog" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape."

Hallström's relaxed, open attitude and his nonjudgmental interest in the astonishing things people do are major reasons for the success of a film that walks a fine line, agog at Irving's effrontery and nerve but not feeling the need to either lionize or punish him for it.

The role of Clifford Irving would be a plum for any actor, but it especially suits Gere, who was born to play frauds and, in his best "An Officer and a Gentleman"-type parts, brings humanity to otherwise smug, narcissistic and self-absorbed characters. With his air of ever so slightly tarnished charm, Gere is completely convincing as someone who burns with enough resentments to attempt this kind of thing but also likes the idea of pushing the ethical envelope because the truth is simply too dull, too unexciting to keep him interested.

Paradoxically, after an amusing Hughes-involved prologue, "The Hoax" starts with a moment of potential legitimate triumph for this writer. The film's Irving has just handed in a novel that he expects will so fulfill his promise as the next Ernest Hemingway that he springs for a flashy sports car even as his furniture is being repossessed. Clearly, living close to the edge is a pleasure for this man, if less so for his artist wife, Edith (Gay Harden with an eerily effective European accent), still unhappy with her husband's recently concluded affair with the icy socialite Nina Van Pallandt (Delpy).

When that sure-thing book deal unexpectedly goes south, Irving is furious enough, at his publishing house in particular and at powerful men in general, that he comes up with the idea of the make-believe autobiography, a scheme he considers foolproof. Hughes can't sue, he confidently tells pal Dick Suskind (Molina), because "he'll never come out of hiding long enough to denounce me."

From here on, "The Hoax" proceeds on two equally entertaining fronts. We see Irving and Suskind, who turns out to be a demon researcher, in their comic opera endeavors to purloin the material necessary to write the book. Gere and Molina obviously relished their classic Don Quijote / Sancho Panza interaction, which also leaves room for some surprisingly emotional situations.

Irving's other job is convincing the publishing world and the world in general that he has the goods. Like any great fabricator, he uses parts of the truth. Like a riverboat gambler, he ups the ante whenever he is cornered. And like any con man, he counts on how much his marks want to believe what he says to be true. Because people in publishing were desperate for a book likely to "sell more copies than the Bible," everyone tries to will his tall tale into being true.

That tale grows stranger still, involving everything from hallucinations to connections between Hughes and the Nixon White House. It finally becomes so strange that it attracts the attention of Hughes himself, who said in that news conference that "I don't remember any script I ever saw in Hollywood as wild or imagination-stretching as this autobiography yarn has turned out to be."

Odds are, he would have liked "The Hoax's" version even better.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

"The Hoax." MPAA rating: R, for language. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. In general release.