Joe Gould’s Secret
by Del Harvey
Not just the story of two guys named Joe, but the secret may be all Tucci’s.
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This independent feature, directed by actor/director/writer Stanley Tucci (Deconstructing Harry, Big Night) is at once a well-crafted film and an engaging, if not sad, tale of two writers in 1940’s New York City. Tucci plays Joseph Mitchell, a writer of human interest stories for The New Yorker magazine. He is having coffee in a diner one morning when an amusing little man comes into the place for his free meal, a daily arrangement he has with the owner. This is Joe Gould, played to American perfection by the British actor Ian Holm (Mr. Holm’s most recogizable role for most American audiences would probably be as the android in the original film Alien).
Inquiring as to the arrangement, Tucci is informed that Joe Gould is a writer, and his project is the Oral History, a sort of irreverent, true-to-life reckoning of people’s words and actions, an accounting of the lives of the average person, to paraphrase Gould?s character. The writer in Mitchell is intrigued and sets out to learn as much as he can about this colorful antic.
The story that follows is one of struggles: of the struggle of personal genius in a society of the masses; of the struggle of human behavior and interaction within that society; and the struggle to create that is common to all writers. Joe Gould’s “secret” is best left to those who wish to view the film; I have the impression that its meaning differs slightly from viewer to viewer. Suffice it to say that the story delves into a certain mixture of diverse societies and the basic thread which binds us all together as an emotional caring species. It is a sort of parable of the city dweller and the love-hate relationship we all share for our great metropolis?. And the twisted manipulations of an intellect such as Gould’s determines a way to overcome the rigidity of “face value,” due to his genius or his guile, and it becomes very difficult to tell them apart after a while. Whatever the case may be, Gould carves an endearing character.
Tucci’s character, a family man with a stable homelife, solid ethics, and reserved manner, is at his core not so different. He, too, is a writer, and wishes someday to write a novel. He believes that life?s routines and the demands of family life have kept him from this personal dream. He is sensitive enough to know otherwise. Tucci also turns in a very fine, if not subdued, performance. He has quite subtly honed his portrayal so that the viewer appreciates the talent behind thework without making the mechanics of his work obvious. It really is an amazing bit of acting.
Tucci’s character is blessed with an understanding wife, played by Hope Davis. She is a photographer by day, wandering the streets of the city photographing its people. Like her husband, she loves the teeming, surging animal that is New York. It shows in every one of her photographs.
Supporting roles are provided to perfection by some very noteworthy actors and actresses. Susan Sarandon plays artist Alice Neel, a friend of Gould’s and a sensitive, caring individual who once painted a rather provocative and evocative portrait of the man. Steve Martin appears in a small role as a book publisher and close friend of Tucci’s. Although his appearance is brief, he does well not to distract from the story with his sudden manifestation. Patricia Clarkson, who recently appeared as the Warden’s ailing wife in The Green Mile, plays Vivian Marquie, the owner of a trendy Greenwich Village gallery. At one point it is suggested that she was Gould’s patron, helping keep him off the street and providing him with some semblance of hope for his future.
Set in the Forties, the costumes (Juliet Polcsa) and sets (Andrew Jackness) are flawless, capturing the period quite aptly. The cinematography, by Maryse Alberti (Velvet Goldmine), and musical score, by Susan Jacobs and Evan Lurie, add the finishing touches which provide the viewer a perfect sense of the period.
Joe Gould’s Secret is a very well-crafted piece of filmmaking, and well worth the viewing, especially if you enjoy watching actors who truly show how its done without giving away of the illusion or mechanics involved. That may well be Stanley Tucci’s secret.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a former member of the L.A. entertainment biz, and a veteran of the Walt Disney Studios, Lucasfilm, and the Directors Guild of America.
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