[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
Joe Gould (Ian Holm), a scruffy, disheveled little man, is a homeless bohemian in a tattered secondhand suit and a grizzled gray beard on the streets of 1940s New York. The profane would-be poet, street critic, and professional party guest is famous among the Greenwich Village literati for his colorful stories and explosive personality, but legendary for his oft-discussed but little seen opus “The Oral History of Our Time,” a collection of conversations had and heard and dutifully recorded for posterity by Gould and stashed around the city.
Based on a pair of biographical essays by New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, Joe Gould’s Secret is a gentle, often beautiful study in opposites directed by and starring Stanley Tucci (Big Night) as Mitchell. A tall, dapper writer with a lazy Southern drawl and a polite but impersonal smile, he becomes fascinated by Gould and they meet for a few weeks of interviews and late-night drinks. Mitchell spins his article “Professor Seagull” and removes himself from Gould’s world. Or so he thinks.
Gould wraps acquaintances into the web of his life. What seems quirky in a character piece isn’t quite so amusing when Mitchell becomes one of Gould’s patrons, with all the responsibility that entails. With his office hours and wife and family (who, frankly, we see far too little of to really register), Mitchell holds that kind of life away from himself at arm’s length and shows great discomfort when Gould gets too close.
Perhaps that’s the problem. Tucci is a thoughtful and careful actor, but here he’s too much of both. As Mitchell he wears his honey-smooth lilt like a hat, hiding behind carefully cultivated diction and practiced delivery, building a façade more than a character. Too controlled to get annoyed, let alone angry, his rawest emotions are discomfort and bemusement.
Holm’s Mitchell, by contrast, is more than simply a firecracker with a short fuse. What could have been a cute, colorful caricature becomes an annoying, pushy, demanding, and supremely selfish and self-centered full-blooded character, an emotional rollercoaster whose highs and lows etch a portrait in frustration and fear.
There’s a sense of sadness and melancholy by the conclusion when Joe Gould’s secret is finally revealed, but in a way it’s a Maguffin. The real story is Joseph Mitchell’s secret, his frustration and remorse and guilt over his passive extrication from the needy Gould’s life, but Tucci’s careful, precise direction never cracks through Mitchell’s façade. Just as Mitchell’s distant observer remains removed from the world on the screen, so Tucci’s direction keeps his lovely recreation of yesteryear New York and the street characters that inhabit that world a kind of cameo, beautifully etched but coolly distant.