Joe Gould's Secret
2000, R, 108 min. Directed by Stanley Tucci. Starring Ian Holm, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Steve Martin, Hope Davis, Susan Sarandon, Patrick Tovatt, Celia Weston.
REVIEWED Fri., April 28, 2000
The very thought of Stanley Tucci's new movie -- his sure-footed but languorous new movie -- is certain to rankle inveterate New Yorker readers who bristle and weep every time someone utters the words “Tina Brown.” But those old fogies have nothing to worry about: Screenwriter Howard A. Rodman and Tucci, who directs and plays New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, are nothing if not faithful to Mitchell's classic 1942 profile of Joe Gould, the legendary irascible Greenwich Village bohemian. Make that old-school bohemian. Walking down the street or at one of the many Village parties he crashed, Gould would suddenly start flapping his arms while making “Scree-eek” sounds, which was his way of interpreting sea-gull, a language he claimed to know inside-out. (Apparently, of all the poets, Longfellow is most effectively translated into sea-gull.) At restaurants, this squat little man would fill his plate or bowl of soup with ketchup and imbibe it by the spoonful because he didn't particularly like “the confounded stuff,” i.e., food. The idea of having a steady job or owning a house just didn't really strike him as the kinds of things he needed to do. “I am introvert and extrovert all rolled into one,” Gould wrote in his unpublished masterpiece, An Oral History of Our Time, which he was fond of reminding everyone within earshot was 11 times as long as the Bible. “One foot says do, the other says bellow like a bull.” Holm's depiction of Gould and all his contradictions is an absolute marvel to watch; it's difficult to take your eyes off him long enough to watch Tucci, who must be perfectly pleased with that formulation since the camera's gaze on Holm is as intense and fascinated as Mitchell's was on Gould in his pieces for The New Yorker. The Oral History, Mitchell wrote in his first profile of Gould, was Gould's attempt to record the spirit of his times by recording the concerns of the average person on the street. It was, according to Mitchell, “a great hodgepodge and kitchen midden of hearsay, a repository of jabber, an omnium-gatherum of bushwa, gab, palaver, hogwash, flapdoodle, and malarkey,” and it's the crux of this movie. Does it exist or doesn't it? Is Gould the genuine article or clinically insane? They're crucial questions for a reporter who stakes 22 years of intermittent observation on one person -- one quite complex and finally elusive person. The literary merits of Mitchell's writing -- the patient confidence of his style, the odd alignment, then misalignment, with his subject -- aren't by nature cinematic virtues: This movie relies so much on small epiphanies that you may be left wondering whether any have happened at all. Then again, maybe that's the point.