Joe Gould's Secret
Director: Stanley Tucci. Cast: Stanley Tucci, Ian Holm, Hope Davis, Susan Sarandon, Patricia Clarkson, Celia Weston. Screenplay: Howard A. Rodman (based on the books "Professor Seagull" and "Joe Gould's Secret" by Joseph Mitchell).

Adapted from material that originally appeared as articles in The New Yorker, Stanley Tucci's new film Joe Gould's Secret is, like the magazine that inspired it, often provocative and offbeat but just as often self-satisfied and glib in its pretense toward sophistication. Joe Gould, played by Ian Holm, is a voluble, spirited prophet of the street, energetic to the point of imbalance, a real-life analog of (and possible model for) Robin Williams' character in The Fisher King. Joe shuffles determinedly through the crowded streets of early-20th-century New York, spouting an incessant stream of talk that sometimes has an audience and sometimes does not. Much of this monologue consists of raw material for Joe's pet project, a "history" of New York in which he is attempting to record on paper every conversation, every anecdote, every article of urban activity that more conventional histories tend to omit. He wants to transcribe what New York looks and sounds like from his point of view in the sidewalks, alleys, and diners, not only to ensure the preservation of what he observes but, in a sense, to validate his own existence. If the vision of New York he observes differs from any that has previously been offered, his hobo-ish existence will have to be credited as a fresh, encompassing vantage from which to witness what other people overlook.

All of this prepares us for both a vivid recreation of a bygone period in the Big Apple's history—and indeed, the period outfittings surpass what one expects from a film of such modest budget—and an intriguing, necessary statement about how class positions determine how one perceives and grasps the world. It is this second, more important goal that Joe Gould's Secret stumbles, and a major reason is that the film is ultimately not Joe's story at all. Rather, the central figure in the narrative is Joseph Mitchell, the staff writer for The New Yorker played by director Tucci, who wrote the articles that brought Joe Gould and his wild, eccentric ambitions to the attention of the journal's sizable readership. Part of the film captures Joseph Mitchell's early encounters with Joe Gould and the process by which Joe becomes an improbable celebrity in a city that more and more seems bent on outpacing the attempts of writers and historians to pin it down. Mitchell's articles portray Joe Gould as a half-scholar, half-madman who pretends to speak the language of seagulls and will not produce or disclose the location of the volumes of history he claims to have written.

Though Mitchell is not intentionally or overtly cynical in his acquaintance with Joe—we do not get the sense he is merely exploiting Joe as quick story material, and he actually seems to want Joe to earn a steady income and pursue his literary dreams—he nonetheless does not seem to absorb the fuller picture of Joe's predicament. For example, Joe is hungry. He is, as near as we can tell, without a steady place to live, or a reliable source of food (aside from the regular kindnesses of certain café proprietors). The regularity with which Joe asks for small-change donations from his friends—who include a gallery docent played by High Art's Patricia Clarkson and a painter played by Susan Sarandon—is not just another instance of frenetic eccentricity. Joe needs this money. Is it possible that a biographer of Joe's life, an attender to his concerns, a companion and friend, could mistake that need?

Joe Gould's Secret wants, at a certain point, to answer that question, but Howard Rodman's screenplay, written from the journalist's perspective, keeps the concerns of Joe's life at arm's length. Even when the Tucci character finally realizes how dismally he has misperceived Joe's struggle, the film is more about Mitchell's obliviousness than it is about Joe's desperation. A post-script to the movie lets us know that Mitchell was so shaken by the unwitting failure of his compassion and perception in his encounters with Joe Gould that he never wrote another article in three decades of work for The New Yorker—but what is more interesting as a thematic arc: the fact that a writer never published or that a possibly brilliant man never ate, never found a permanent home, spent his final days in a sanitorium? This movie reminded me of Sophie's Choice, Mississippi Burning, and all those pictures that depict racial or political injustice not from the viewpoint of the injured and misserved but from the eyes of a white, Western onlooker whose liberal sensibilities are opened by what he sees. Why do we bother with these bland, dimwitted surrogates when the kernel of the story lies in the people they observe? Why do the films assume that the struggles and epiphanies of a writer are more dramatic than the people and events about whom they write?

The basic story facts of Joe Gould's Secret are too interesting to make the film unworthwhile viewing, and Ian Holm's performance is reliably engaging—though, in truth, Joe Gould is one of those roles like Geoffrey Rush's in Shine that privileges showy gestures over controlled, succinct technique. I did not dislike the picture, but I was disappointed in it, and I wish it had reordered its priorities. Rack it up as an interesting misfire from filmmakers who should know better. C+

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