JOE GOULD'S SECRET (2000) *** 1/4
Directed by Stanley Tucci. Written by Howard A. Rodman, based on "Professor Sea Gull" and "Joe Gould's Secret" by Joseph Mitchell. Photography, Maryse Alberti. Editing, Suzy Elmiger. Production design, Andrew Jackness.Music, Evan Lurie. Produced by Elizabeth W. Alexander, Stanley Tucci and Charles Weinstock. Cast: Sir Ian Holm (Joe Gould), Stanley Tucci (Joe Mitchell), Hope Davis (Therese Mitchell), Sarah Hyland (Elizabeth Mitchell), Hallee Hirsh (Nora Mitchell), Celia Weston (Sarah), Patrick Tovatt (Harold Ross), Susan Sarandon (Alice Neel), Patricia Clarkson (Vivian Marquie), et al. A USA Films/October Films release. 108 minutes. R. (occasional language)
This is a true story. In the early 1940s, Joe Mitchell, a staff writer of the New Yorker Magazine encountered Joe Gould - an eccentric, bohemian, self-styled writer and genius, a bum, panhandling drunkard, sponging, scrounging street person, strikingly ragged, ever-performing and grandstanding figure, the author - he claimed - of a monumental work-in-progress, "The Oral History of Time," and a man who spoke seagull language.
The latter trait became the title of a 1942 New Yorker profile by Mitchell, "Professor Sea Gull." It was a hit, which brought no riches to anyone yet made Gould famous in certain circles, notably the Greenwich Village sort. Gould's new celebrity opened doors for him, though there were no drastic changes in his personality or modus vivendi.
He kept referring to Joe Mitchell, a courtly, diffident Southerner married to a photographer and the father of two charming girls, as "my biographer," a title that soon became a burden for Mitchell, just as the now-dependent-on-him Gould did.
The movie is a now flowing, now starts-and-spurts depiction of the relationship of the two Joes. Its epicenter is the portrait of Gould, whom Sir Ian Holm plays with in-your-face passion, demonic energy, ego-projection, explosiveness, and hamminess (appropriate here) that make it the most electric role of his career. Eccentrics and/or bohemians are not uncommon, but genuine as well as lovable eccentrics are rare. Forget the mythology of much literature, film and journalism which often depict them as the salt of the earth --when at most "spice of the earth" would have sufficed. Professed anti-conformism is not by itself enough to make great characters. Joe Gould is not great, but he does stand out, and in a sense, that's all that is needed to hold your attention today, in our era of homogenized sameness when individualism --notably on-screen figures -- is at a low ebb. (Beyond films and people, think of cars. From the 30s to the 50s kids used to play the game of identifying each marque and model. The autos were so distinctive. Now they're like the proverbial peas in a pod).
Joe Gould reeks with personality while blurring the line between who is the real Joe and who the invented one. Hirsute, dishevelled and unkempt, must also reek with odors, the result of not bathing, not changing clothes, sleeping in flop houses or missions. Delicately--and unrealistically-- the film does not mention this point, and when Gould attends a party we don't see the other guests sniffing the air.
Joe Mitchell, on the contrary, is a breath of fresh air. Quiet and polite, he suggests a bundle of complexities that do not come to the fore, a mystery of creativity, writer's blocks and problems that remain un-analyzed and seldom suggested. Of the two Joes he is the more interesting behind his near-but not-quite-placid facade. And indeed, in his lifetime, Mitchell produced one book, "Up in the Old Hotel," a collection of his writings. And after Gould died (1957) in a mental hospital, Mitchell did another New Yorker story on him in 1964, "Joe Gould's Secret." That was the last thing he ever wrote, even though for the next 30 or so years, Mitchell dutifully came to the magazine office where he was heard typing away. The mystery is Mitchell, and not Gould.
Stanley Tucci plays Mitchell with extraordinary realism. He is not a star, an actor, or a player, but he is, in an unshowy fashion, a living, complex presence that is totally credible and implies a great deal more than meets the eye. Tucci lives his part with immense yet guarded understanding, and buttresses this with the great love Tucci has always professed for the New York of many decades ago. It shows all the time, with a certain sweetness that, curiously, goes as far as eliminating any references or allusions to the on-going World War II in the 40s.
In a time when film soundtracks consist of platitudes, grunts, jejune dialogue and noises from explosions or crashes, Tucci is making us a gift of a real talkie. And of a real adult work. I don't mean "adult" as in sex and expletives but as in grown-up. We ought to genuflect.