Dir: Lasse Hallstrom. US. 2006. 115mins.

As struttingly confident asits main character, true-life literary fraudster Clifford Irving, The Hoax is far and away Lasse Hallstrom's best Americanfilm yet. Featuring a Richard Gere who has finallycast off his mid-term career doldrums to reveal himself as an actor ofMachiavellian charisma and authority, it initially plays as a picaresque Catch Me If You Can-style biopic of ahandsome US chancer. But though it never loses itssense of humour, TheHoax soon morphs into a more complex tale about self-seeding deceptions andthe way that money and power act as the compost that allow them to grow andspread.

Though Gereis not the box-office draw he once was (witness the undeserved box-office flopof Bee Season), Miramax can expect todo well out of this likeable, dynamic product domestically off the back ofstrong critical support and upbeat word-of-mouth.

Overseas prospects look strongtoo, although the film will appeal to younger and more urban markets than muchof Hallstrom's previous oeuvre. Awards-season action islikely, with attention not only for Gere's bravuraperformance but also to William Wheeler's enjoyably tight and tricksy script, which plays its own hoaxes on the audience.Production designer Mark Ricker's tasty recreation of the post-hippy,pre-Watergate years should also be in with a shout.

In 1971, jobbing writerClifford Irving pitched what sounded like the book industry coup of the decadeto top New York publisher McGraw Hill: an authorised biography of Howard Hughes that the millionairerecluse had allegedly asked Irvingto write, on the condition that the project should remain secret untilpublication.

It was, of course, a hoax:Irving and his friend and accomplice, archive researcher Richard Suskind, were banking on the fact that Hughes would nevergo public to denounce the book as a fraud. So convincing were the Hughesletters forged by Irving, so packed with believable detail the interviewtranscripts he later fabricated, that McGraw Hill and Life Magazine (which paid a large sum to publish extracts from thebook) bought the lie wholesale, paying Irving and Hughes a total of $765,000 (leveragedto a million in the film), which his Swiss wife deposited in a bank accountback home.

It was the Swiss policeinvestigation into these payments that eventually blew the lid on the affair: Irving returned the moneyand served 17 months in prison, while Edith and Suskindreceived shorter sentences.

Wheeler's script sticks tothe bare facts of the story, limiting itself to inventing a couple of episodes,including one in which Irvingpays a hooker to seduce Suskind. The characters,though, are given a dramatic logic that has little to do with their real lifecounterparts.

Gere plays Irvingas a conflicted charmer powered by sheer force of self-belief, while the Suskind of the film, played by Alfred Molina, becomes aweak, nervous but loyal sidekick, a voice of conscience too much in love withthe friend it should be cautioning.

Marcia Gay Harden's take on Irving's wifeEdith begins in comic mode but gains pathos as we see how ready she too is tobe taken in by the two-timing Irving.

There are scenes of nearslapstick, as when a reluctant Suskind snaffles amanuscript from the US Defence Department in histrousers; while Hope Davis and Stanley Tucci giveenjoyable sideline performances as, respectively, Irving's editor and Life magazine supremoShelton Fisher, two tough cookies who are so blinded by the glory of the Hughesdeal that they become putty in Irving's hands.

The really engaging aspectof the film, though, is the way that Gere's characterfirst builds a credible fantasy world out of scraps of memory and research, andthen begins to inhabit it like a Sim City playerconfusing his self-built virtual metropolis with the real world. Thisincreasingly hallucinatory descent is saved from mannerism because it isgrounded in the audience's own shifting judgements ofIriving: he charms and manipulates us as well as hisfriends and publishers.

The Hoaxbarrels along at a cracking pace, and Hallstromadopts an informal approach to structure and editing that suits the periodwell. The dialogue is spot on too, smart without being smart ass. A catchyjazz-inflected soundtrack by longtime Coen Brothers collaboratorCarter Burwell, backed up by period music by Richie Havens,The Rolling Stones and others, add to the verve of the exercise.

Production companies/backers
Miramax Films
Yari Film Group

US distribution

International sales
Syndicate Films International

Mark Gordon
Betsy Beers
Leslie Holleran
Joshua D Maurer
Bob Yari

William Wheeler

Oliver Stapleton

Andrew Mondshein

Production design
Mark Ricker

Carter Burwell

Main cast
Richard Gere
Alfred Molina
Marcia Gay
Hope Davis