In his most complex role for years, Richard Gere plays Clifford Irving, a failed novelist and audacious con artist who, in the early ’70s, suckered publisher McGraw Hill into paying him an advance of $1 million for the rights to Howard Hughes’ authorised biography. Since the eccentric billionaire was a recluse, Irving was able to fabricate handwritten letters, secret meetings and oddly plausible details. When he and his nerdy researcher, Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), pitch the project to sceptical editor Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) and wily publisher Shelton Fisher (Stanley Tucci), an inspired Suskind pretty much seals the deal with the cryptic, improvised line, ‘He gave me a prune.’
Whisked along by a jaunty Carter Burwell score, director Lasse Hallström’s loose-wristed conspiracy caper captures the frantic energy and self-delusion at the heart of the project – especially when Irving adopts Hughes’ speaking voice and ‘channels’ his subject’s supposed thoughts. But as the multiple deceptions spiral out of control, Gere also conveys the emotional vulnerability beneath Irving’s self-serving narcissism. That said, William Wheeler’s breezy screenplay never soft-pedals on Irving’s faults: his selfish exploitation of both his writing partner and his long-suffering hippie artist wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), is clearly despicable. Unfortunately, as the plot unravels, so does the film. When Wheeler’s script links Irving’s literary scam to the big political picture, with suggestions that advance proofs of the book were the catalyst for the Nixon-ordered Watergate burglaries, our credulity is stretched to breaking point. Ultimately, these smart, zeitgeisty riffs are just as implausible as the idea of an authorised Howard Hughes autobiography.