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'Joe Gould's Secret'

Stanley Tucci captures the street life of old New York in 'Joe Gould's Secret'

Friday, June 09, 2000

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"In New York, especially Greenwich Village, down among the cranks and misfits and the one-lungers and might-have-beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats ... I have always felt at home."

'Joe Gould's Secret'

Rating: R, for some language and brief nudity.

Players: Ian Holm, Stanley Tucci

Director: Stanley Tucci

Critic's call: 3 stars


So stated Joe Gould, the Boston-born magna cum laude graduate of Harvard who found his comfort zone as a raging bohemian panhandler. In his four decades sleeping on the sidewalks of New York he bummed meals and cash, played the wild man and worked on "The Oral History of Our Time," a collection of personal essays and conversations overheard on the street.

Gould, in turn, became the subject of a 1942 New Yorker magazine profile by Joseph Mitchell, also a transplant to the city (from North Carolina). Domesticated and mannerly, with a wife and two daughters and a comfortable apartment, Mitchell apparently felt affinity for a certain type of subject, gravitating toward denizens of the city's earthier districts.

Now Stanley Tucci, the actor and director of "Big Night" and "The Impostors," tells the story of both men -- and, in degrees, of their city -- in "Joe Gould's Secret," which was the title of an article Mitchell wrote in 1964, seven years after Gould's death.

Tucci, it would appear, also qualifies as a kindred spirit. "Joe Gould's Secret" bears a combination of humor and melancholy similar to that found in the wonderful "Big Night." The joy of life, even in the face of failure, won out in that movie. But the new film, a reserved character study featuring estimable acting performances, leaves us more with a taste of ashes rather than the sublime Italian food of the earlier picture.

Still, they have some things in common. The uncompromising, hot-tempered protagonists of Tucci's films rail against the inferior beings who become successful despite or even because of their gauchery -- Ian Holm's rival restaurateur in "Big Night," Alfred Molina's ham actor in "The Impostors."

As Joe Gould, Holm plays the other side of the street, damning the philistines in general. His greatest creation may be his own persona -- a ragged, funny, foul-mouthed, playful exhibitionist who is reluctant to let anyone invade the privacy of his soul. Still, his admirers -- who range from poet e.e. cummings to painter Alice Neel (Susan Sarandon) to gallery owner Vivian Marquie (Patricia Clarkson) -- accept him on his own terms.

Mitchell (Tucci) first encounters him at a lunch counter, pouring a bottle of ketchup into a bowl of soup and muttering imprecations all the while. Later, Mitchell sees Gould holding court before diners at another restaurant and taking contributions to what he called the Joe Gould fund -- it's what he lived on. When Mitchell hears about the oral history project, he's hooked.

Yet while Gould is the more flamboyant individual, Mitchell seems the more interesting man. An honest-to-God mild-mannered reporter, this self-effacing man favors dark overcoats and seems incapable of saying what's on his mind without stumbling all over his words. Maybe that's why he writes, which he does well enough to win praise from legendary New Yorker editor Harold Ross (Patrick Tovatt), played as a bit of an eccentric himself, a man whose laugh cannot obscure his sadness.

After the Gould article is published, however, Mitchell faces the question of his continuing responsibility to his subject. Gould attaches himself to his "biographer," who begins to dread the interruptions. He has made a minor celebrity of Gould, who doesn't know how to react when his 15 minutes have passed.

Mitchell has printed the legend. Ultimately, he will print the facts. Is it harder to know them or, perhaps, to recognize too much of the spirit of Joe Gould in himself?

The other major character in the movie is New York itself, or at least these specific blocks of Greenwich Village as they existed in the 1940s. Tucci and his designers recreate the body and the spirit, both inside and out. Mitchell's tidy apartment, where he lives with his photographer wife (Hope Davis) and their children, seems to mirror his personality. The dirty red brick buildings and the concrete sidewalks, the dusty bars and the middle-class diners, belong to a city that doesn't exist anymore.

Tucci seems to both celebrate this place and regret its passing. "Joe Gould's Secret" seems as much a lament as a tribute.

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