Joe Gould's Secret

Directed by Stanley Tucci
Starring: Ian Holm, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Hope Davis, Steve Martin, Susan Sarandon, Patrick Tovatt, Celia Weston.
MPAA Rating: R for some language and brief nudity.

Review by Matt Heffernan
May 3, 2000

At times, I feel like Joe Gould. He was a writer who truly lived the bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village. From the time of the first world war, through the 1950s, he worked on an oral history of the world. He had no publisher giving him advances -- he didn't even have a roof over his head. Yet, he was well known in the artistic community, simultaneously celebrated and shunned. I can't claim to be a celebrity in any circle, and my lifestyle is decidedly bourgeois, but I can relate to the need to write without any hope of publishing or compensation. I don't know how well Stanley Tucci can relate to him, but he is certainly fascinated, and has created a wonderful film about this odd man.

Around 1950, New Yorker columnist Joseph Mitchell (Tucci) first saw Joe Gould (Ian Holm) in a diner, where Gould often goes to get a bowl of soup, into which he promptly pours ketchup. Mitchell starts asking around about him, and soon Gould arranges a meeting himself. Gould agrees to let Mitchell write an article about him and his oral history.

Mitchell follows him around, going to parties, poetry readings, and various friends' apartments that act as archives for Gould's work. Gould claims to have 1,200,000 words written so far, but the only volumes available are essays, not the conversations which are supposed to be the bulk of the oral history. Obviously Gould is eccentric, possibly mad, yet the writings that Mitchell has seen are impressive. He does, however, begin to doubt that the oral history exists in a written form.

Joe Gould's Secret, much like Tucci's directorial debut Big Night, is a very quiet film. There are no car chases, explosions, or moments of high melodrama. Still, what Tucci has created (with screenwriter Howard A. Robbin) is an adventure. It's almost like Luke Skywalker following Obi-Wan Kenobi, waiting for that seminal moment of divine wisdom. Joe Gould's world is exciting, and mystifying, and far more interesting than Mitchell's work-a-day life. Mitchell gets to live as a bohemian vicariously.

The center of this film lies in these two performances. We need to believe this adventure, that Mitchell would be the kind of man to deal with the annoyances of Gould in exchange for some enlightenment. Tucci is excellent as a simple man who wants to be a good citizen, but is fascinated by the bizarre. And it is Holm who brings the bizarre to the screen. His performance is brilliant without being gimmicky or false. Unfortunately, it's far too early for the Academy to remember this film come next winter. Only a big financial success like Silence of the Lambs can overcome those short attention spans.

The ending of this film has a written epilogue stating that after Mitchell wrote his last article on Joe Gould (where he reveals his "secret") in 1964, he didn't write another thing until his retirement from The New Yorker 32 years later. In effect, he became the opposite of Joe Gould.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Joe Gould's Secret (2000)

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan