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Friday, April 6, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Despite terrific cast, "The Hoax" trips a bit coming down to the wire

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2.5 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"The Hoax," with Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Julie Delpy, Stanley Tucci, Eli Wallach. Directed by Lasse Hallstrm, from a screenplay by William Wheeler, based on Clifford Irving's memoir of the same name.

116 minutes. Rated R for language.

Movies about real-life con artists, like "Catch Me If You Can" and the recent "Color Me Kubrick," can be irresistible, and Lasse Hallström's "The Hoax" captures some of the genre's allure. It's the story of Clifford Irving (Richard Gere), an unknown but hopeful writer who in 1971 cooked up a heck of a story: an autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. He pitched the idea to publishing giant McGraw-Hill, and — surprise! — they bought it. This meant, of course, that Irving needed to come up with a book in the voice of Hughes (whom he had never met) and with a way to accept the company's generous advance checks — which were made out, of course, to Hughes.

And so off "The Hoax" goes, with a dizzying array of well-cast supporting characters: Irving's stressed- out best pal and researcher Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina); his Swiss-German wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden, who struggles a bit with the Zsa Zsa accent); his sometime mistress and full-time baroness/socialite/would-be actress Nina (Julie Delpy); his sleek, ambitious editor Andrea Tate (Hope Davis); the meticulously controlled McGraw-Hill president Shelton Fisher (Stanley Tucci).

The cast is terrific (particularly Davis' slyly comic performance — her Andrea seems to be perpetually working her last nerve); so much so that you might not notice that the movie isn't quite as good as the story that inspired it. Hallström pays attention to period detail, soaking the movie in orange shag carpeting and '70s rock, but he and screenwriter William Wheeler never quite have us believing that a major publishing house would fall for this scam. (The intelligence with which Davis and Tucci imbue their characters doesn't match the way they accept Irving's pitch wholesale.) And Irving's complicated love life, as he bounces like a ping-pong ball between Edith and Nina, threatens to take over the movie but isn't particularly compelling.

But the fun of "The Hoax" comes in watching a liar start to believe his stories, and in seeing Gere's boyish, ingratiating Irving seemingly make up tales on the fly. At one point, backed into a corner, he almost admits to the scam and then makes the split-second decision (you see it wavering in his face) to brazen it out a little longer. Later, confronted by Edith with his lies (she's in on the book scam, but not on the Nina chapters in his real life), he starts making up another story, weaving into it elements of the truth; little bits of credibility that shore up the fantasy. "The Hoax" doesn't tell its stories as well as Irving does, but it's an enjoyable immersion into a master storyteller's frantically made-up world.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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