An observant evocation of New York’s literary and bohemian world of more than a half-century ago, “Joe Gould’s Secret” remains sympathetically engaging even as it sporadically stumbles on its journey through the streets, saloons and salons of Greenwich Village. Distinguished by a fine central performance by Ian Holm as the titular true-life “character,” a shabby little man who is a writing genius in his own mind, pic is also marked by a studied directorial style that could be complimented as rigorous when it works and criticized as stiff when it doesn’t. Generally favorable critical response and appeal of the story and milieu to sophisticated audiences suggest an OK B.O. future in specialized markets for this USA Films release upon its skedded early-April bow.
Much of the long-gestating project’s intellectual interest stems from its basis in the work of the late Joseph Mitchell, the legendary writer for the New Yorker who specialized in profiles of the city’s lowlife. Of his subjects, none came to be better known than Gould, a Harvard-educated son of a well-to-do Boston family who dropped out of “respectable” life to pursue a lifelong project, the writing of “The Oral History of Our Time,” a massive tome dedicated to capturing the everyday talk of ordinary people, with philosophical observations mixed in.
Howard A. Rodman’s intelligent, well-judged screenplay is based on Mitchell’s two New Yorker stories about Gould, the first of which made the man a mini-celebrity when it appeared in 1942; the second, much longer piece, published in 1964, seven years after Gould’s death, disclosed far more about the author’s long and erratic involvement with his subject, in addition to revealing the “secret” that no one else knew.
While one can read the profiles and never even know that Mitchell was married with kids, script makes good use of his domestic situation as a contrast to Gould’s parallel world. A neat, polite and deferential Southerner, Mitchell (helmer Stanley Tucci) lives with his wife, Therese (Hope Davis), a photographer of street subjects, and two young daughters. His work life is similarly well ordered: He writes each day, when he is not out doing field research, in his proper little office at the New Yorker under the tart but tolerant supervision of editor Harold Ross (an excellent Patrick Tovatt).
Having first spied the disheveled, cantankerous Gould in a diner pouring a bottle of ketchup into his bowl of soup, Mitchell learns about the “Oral History” and decides to do a profile of the homeless hobo, who carries portions of his manuscript with him everywhere and is forever soliciting donations to the Joe Gould Fund, which will keep him alive and moving ahead with his grand-scale project.
As the two men meet regularly in Village cafes and bars, Gould eagerly regales his “biographer” with the most minute details of his life story; aside from being an unwashed bum with a huge scraggly beard given to crashing poetry society meetings and breaking into Indian dances, he has acquired a number of eminent acquaintances and supporters, such as e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, gallery owner Vivian Marquie (Patricia Clarkson) and artist Alice Neel (Susan Sarandon), who has painted a scandalous portrait of Gould.
In essence, Gould makes his hard but gutsy way through life endlessly promoting the idea that his unfinished “Oral History” is the greatest unpublished literary work of all time. Although Mitchell is vaguely disappointed with the few excerpts he examines in the school composition books Gould shows him, he accepts that the bulk of it is temporarily inaccessible and publishes the admiring profile. Celebrity brings Gould many letters, a roof over his head courtesy of an anonymous donor, his own table at the Minetta Tavern and the attention of a big-time publisher, Charlie Duell (Steve Martin), who’s interested in the manuscript, if only Gould would produce it.
As for Mitchell, he finds he can’t shake the man he’s put in the limelight, who turns up at his office anytime he wants, seeking full attention and generally being a nuisance. This finally provokes a sad but necessary confrontation that incidentally uncovers the secret of Gould’s life.
Although the picture doesn’t pursue the psychological aspects of Mitchell’s fascination with Gould or try to explain why the author allows himself to become so consumed by his subject’s life, there is an implicit sense of “there but for the grace of God…” in Mitchell’s feelings for Gould. By expanding the range to include Mitchell’s wife, pic offers three characters who capture street-level life in New York City in their own ways, each equally valid.
By extension, the film itself offers snapshots of various strata of Manhattan life in the ’40s, from the corridors of publishing power and watering holes of assorted stripes to flophouses and the common meeting ground of the subway, where, it might be pointed out, everyone on the social scale can be seen to be nicely dressed and trying to look their best — even the homeless.
Tucci, who co-directed the very fine “Big Night” with Campbell Scott and then the misfired farce “The Impostors” on his own, continues to show a proclivity for presenting his scenes in master shots when possible and keeping cutting to a minimum. This works wonderfully well in a one-take sequence in which, in the background, the New Yorker receptionist (Celia Weston) tries to convince Gould that Mitchell is away on vacation while the foregrounded Mitchell is cowering around a hallway corner. It’s even amusing as a kind of Godardian change of pace in a barroom sequence as the camera remains fixed while Mitchell and Gould take turns leaning their heads into frame from either side. At other times, however, there is a sense of constriction and dramatic limitation, a way in which the rigid style is preventing the life of the city from washing onto the screen the way the material would seem to call for.
Convincing at all times as the eccentric who may have been as manipulative as he was nutty, Holm emphasizes Gould’s lucidity and chooses to downplay his alcoholism and obnoxious extremes. Tucci, while playing a professional observer and reporter, remains reined in by a reticence and unassertiveness that keep Mitchell at an emotional remove. Large cast of supporting players is colorful and accomplished.
Although a modest budget keeps the film’s physical focus relatively narrow, production designer Andrew Jackness, costume designer Juliet Polcsa and cinematographer Maryse Alberti have packed the picture with period flavor by using many real Village locations and coordinating an immaculately handsome look for the appealing tale. Evan Lurie’s piano-dominated score is supplemented by numerous period tunes.