Speak and Sell: Clifford Irving tells another Hughes lie.

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You’ve lied. You’re called on it. What do you do? Certain people crumble. Others, like author Clifford Irving, are further emboldened: They don’t merely deny the charge; they add a few more layers to their story, plus lots of outrage. Irving, the subject of Lasse Hallström’s The Hoax, nearly got away with his most famous lie in the early ’70s, and it was far from a tiny fib. Frustrated by his failure as a writer, Irving pitched a biography on reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, telling publisher McGraw-Hill that Hughes selected him to tell his story. Irving had a handwritten directive from Hughes as evidence and whispered of communications with Hughes. He humbly admitted to the execs that he was as astonished as they were.

The thing is, Irving had never met Hughes, and the letters were forged by Irving himself. At least that’s how it started according to the film, which was written by William Wheeler based on Irving’s own book about the experience, also titled The Hoax. (Irving reportedly does not want to be associated with the movie—citing, ironically, untruths in Wheeler’s telling.) The story begins with Irving (Richard Gere) living it up after being assured by his editor, Andrea Tate (Hope Davis), that his latest work would be published and become a success. Not so fast: The deal didn’t get inked, and he and his artist wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), are left broke as ever. An article on Hughes in Newsweek, which contained a photo of a letter handwritten by the tycoon, gives Irving the idea that would eventually land him and his researcher, Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), in jail.

As in previous films like 2005’s Casanova or 2000’s Chocolat, Hallström’s touch is playful. Even as Suskind is having palpitations over photographing government documents—never is research so crucial as when your powerful subject doesn’t know who you are—Irving still acts as if it’s all a harmless prank. The author gets high off his own ingenuity, spinning tales that are a shade too colorful and proclaiming, “The more outrageous I sound, the more convincing I sound!” Irving even plays dress-up—slicked hair, pencil mustache—when he energetically mimics Hughes on falsified taped interviews. Throughout the endeavor, the pair are frequently challenged, often in an office of circling publishing wolves. Suskind sweats; Irving grins and beefs up his story. He tells them that Hughes talked about buying a majority interest in McGraw-Hill if they don’t support the book: “Just keep the printing presses and get rid of the idiots!”

Gere knows there’s one trait every good liar must have: charm. (It’s a useful trait in a two-hour movie, too.) His never-say-die enthusiasm forces you onto Irving’s side, holding your breath along with his whenever the results of another handwriting analysis are announced and celebrating as he eases out of another tight spot. Molina’s Suskind, therefore, is the comic relief for as long as the project is portrayed a joke. Sweaty and messily dressed, Molina makes Suskind anxious and awkward when it’s showtime. (“He gave me a prune!” he offers the publishers as a Hughes anecdote, barely after the greetings have ended.) When he’s with Irving, he’s more comfortable but still nervous. (“There’s an angry billionaire, and he’s chasing me!” he points out when his friend attempts to reassure him.)

Davis, in contrast, is fierce despite her character’s very ’70s, very feminine A-line suits and helmeted dark bob. Tate’s initial steely reluctance to believe Irving’s stories nicely gives way to giddiness when it starts to seem like the project’s for real. Her ferociousness never really disappears, though; Davis’ best moment may be when Tate takes down an assistant who allegedly screwed up: “Pray that you die, you sniveling twat,” she hisses shortly after beaming at the prospect of a Hughes visit.

In a similar way, The Hoax subtly morphs from a fun story about a scam into a character study, with a bit of a thriller thrown in à la A Beautiful Mind. The partners’ consciences regarding the book—one is nervous about the lies, the other isn’t—show roots in their home lives as everything starts to fall apart. The story even gets political, dragging in a battle between Hughes and the Nixon White House regarding Hughes’ airline, TWA, which has a tie to Irving’s book. No matter how closely you pay attention at this complex but mesmerizing point, you’re likely to walk out of the theater feeling, appropriately, like the characters—unsure of what was fantasy and what was reality but knowing you’ve just been caught in a whirlwind.