Written for the screen by William Wheeler and based on Irving's memoir of the events, The Hoax is the story of how the author tries to con the New York publishing world and then the nation into believing that he has ghost-written the autobiography of billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. By 1970, Hughes hasn't been seen in public or granted an interview for a decade. So Irving (Richard Gere) believes that he can concoct a narrative of Hughes' life out of public information, punch it up with the kind of salty Texas aphorisms Hughes employed when he hobnobbed with Hollywood magnates and crossed intellectual swords with crusading congressmen, and pass it off as a genuine as-told-to original. Irving has a productive imagination. He's published several well-reviewed novels, none of which, alas, have sold very well. And he's published Fake, a book about an art forger who no one seems to remember and certainly no one learns anything from.
The fun in The Hoax proceeds from Irving's undaunted inventiveness. At the outset, he and his research associate Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina) gamble that Hughes prefers his privacy enough that he will never come forward to repudiate a book that will produce revenues amounting to pocket change for the billionaire. But when Hughes does come forward, after a fashion, Irving has to revise his story over and over again. Like the novelist that he is, we see him seize bits and pieces of real detail to mold into the narrative of the most outrageous fiction that he and Howard Hughes are collaborators.
The reason for the fakery is 100 percent about money. Nobody would pay Irving didly for a biography of Hughes. And, in fact, the half-million-dollar contract he negotiates with McGraw-Hill has four-fifths of the money going to Hughes. The scheme includes a complicated wrinkle to have the billionaire's portion made out to H.R. Hughes and for Irving's wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) to deposit it into a Swiss bank account in the name of Helga R. Hughes. Irving is smart, creative and gutsy, but the con also works because Irving's publishers (including serialization in Life) are so eager to believe him. His editor, Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) practically drools over how much money the book is going to make. And company owner Shelton Fisher (Stanley Tucci) is determined to go forward long after disturbing evidence has emerged that Irving's book is phony. So, in no small part, this picture determines to deflate any enduring notion that the publishing industry exists for the worthy enterprise of bringing literary art into the world. If that happens, it's a by-product.
But ultimately The Hoax has even bigger fish to fry. In the middle of his research, Irving receives an unbidden cache of files indicating that in the mid-1950s Hughes funneled significant sums of money to Richard Nixon's brother Donald and through "first friend" Bebe Rebozo to the president. Irving believes that the files have come from Hughes himself, and that they are aimed at embarrassing a politician Hughes has turned against. In this, the minnow doesn't recognize the whale that has swum up behind him.
As the story plays out, Irving only belatedly realizes that in his impudent scheme to corral a few hundred thousand dollars for himself he has become a pawn in a game played by giants for hundreds of millions of dollars and immense control of power. Irving's book was withdrawn shortly before publication, and that was what Hughes evidently wanted. The break-in at the Watergate happened not long afterwards, and not terribly long after that Richard Nixon left the White House in disgrace. It's the premise of this film that the latter development is also what Hughes wanted. Clifford Irving was not invited to the game, but once he charmed his way in, he played a significant role and then was sacrificed as all good pawns are.