In the age of "American Idol" contestant Sanjaya Malakar, when the line between celebrity and obvious fraud has been cheerfully erased, it's hard to say what audiences will make of "The Hoax."

It stars Richard Gere as Clifford Irving, a notorious liar back in the 1970s, when being exposed as a scam artist still carried some degree of social stigma.

Irving was a writer who revived a moribund career by claiming to be working a biography of Howard Hughes, personally authorized by the reclusive billionaire.

This was a lie - Irving was merely a guy with too many rejection letters and a bruised ego, desperate for status and attention. His claim of a personal connection to Hughes was a spur-of-the-moment gambit to impress a disinterested editor (played by Hope Davis), whose flagging opinion of Irving mirrored the general feeling of New York's literary elite.

It was a gambit that worked, though, leading Irving to mount a hasty campaign to preserve the illusion that he was Hughes' confidant and chronicler - a ruse that he managed to sustain right up to the moment of the book's publication (and long enough to cash a million-dollar check from McGraw-Hill).

This forms the early appeal of "The Hoax" - director Lasse Hallstrom gives Irving's seat-of-the-pants hustle a lively pace, Gere (as most actors do) revels in the chance to play a scoundrel, and both get help from Alfred Molina's endearing turn as Irving's loyal best friend and fearful enabler.

Hallstrom treats the scam as comedy, and there are faint echoes in Gere and Molina of an Abbott/Costello screen team - Molina nervously photographing samples of Hughes' handwriting at the Library of Congress, while the fast-talking Gere provides cover.

The movie turns darker as it mines Irving's relationship with his wife (Marcia Gay Harden, stuck in a glum role), and his on-again-off-again fling with his mistress (Julie Delpy). A comedy that took an admiring look at a hustler's pluck becomes a conspiracy yarn that's thickened, slowed and muddied by Watergate, Nixon and big-money control of America, in the person of Hughes.

Irving discovers that his biggest problem isn't that he's a liar, just that he's out of his league - a two-bit hustler in a big-money game, a made-to-order fall guy in a power struggle among Nixon, Hughes and congressional watchdogs.

That's the movie's argument, anyway, made murky (and much less fun) by a narrative that, in the movie's final sections, shows Irving slowly going nuts, so committed to elaborate deceptions that he starts to believe them. Fakery and reality converge, and that's probably the point.

It's too bad it doesn't land with more oomph, because "The Hoax" is a grown-up, conceptually ambitious movie, one that might have given cinema-starved adults a place to go besides "Wild Hogs."

Produced by Mark Gordon, Leslie Holleran, Joshua D. Maurer, Betsy Beers, Bob Yari, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, written by William Wheeler, music by Carter Burwell, distributed by Miramax Films.