Sharp portrait of a writer and his subject

Review: Stanley Tucci, as star and director, brings a vivid re-creation of two legendary literary profiles to the screen.

April 28, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"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."

These are the words of Joe Gould, a Boston-born, Harvard-educated son of physicians who moved to New York in 1916 and went on to become a well-known character in Greenwich Village. Gould was the subject of two legendary New Yorker articles written by Joseph Mitchell in the 1940s and 1960s. And he is the confounding, elusive center of "Joe Gould's Secret," Stanley Tucci's filmed adaptation of those pieces.

One of the most vexing challenges to face a filmmaker is how to transfer -- with good faith, a sound ear and visual energy -- a piece of transporting writing to the screen. When the writing happens to be non-fiction, the problem becomes how to preserve the poetry along with the facts. Tucci has done an admirable job with the conundrum in "Joe Gould's Secret," which may not do full justice to two of history's greatest pieces of literary journalism but doesn't blaspheme them, either.

Rather, "Joe Gould's Secret" provides the invaluable service of preserving an ephemeral moment of New York life, exploring the complex drives and neuroses that animate genius and, with luck, inspiring filmgoers to discover for themselves the sublime gifts of Mitchell's writing.

By the time Mitchell met him, in the 1940s, Gould was a fixture on the Village's street corners, in its coffee shops (where he would douse free lunches with gobs of ketchup), its bars and its flop-houses. One of Gould's claims to fame was his fluency in sea gull, and he would flap, croak and squawk his way through monologues in the avian language. "Professor Seagull" was the name of Mitchell's first article about Gould, a piece that catapulted the latter into fame as one of New York's most colorful bohemians.

The film might have focused just on Gould; certainly Ian Holm's growling, biting and ultimately vulnerable performance would have justified the cinematic equivalent of a New Yorker profile. But instead, Tucci, who also plays Mitchell in the film, has chosen to focus on the troubled relationship between the two men, which brought to the fore Mitchell's own neuroses as a writer.

Raised in North Carolina, his soft drawl rarely rising above a whisper, Mitchell emerges here almost as the passive-aggressive side of Gould's exhibitionist personality. They were two sides of the same coin and, in the end, both prone to self-destructive writers' blocks. Gould would die alone in 1952 of arteriosclerosis and senility, his "Oral History of Our Time" never having been written, let alone published; Mitchell died in 1996, having written not a word since his final article on Gould in 1964.

The role of Mitchell is too wispy to make full use of Tucci's prodigious gifts as a physical actor, but as a director he's the author's ideal cinematic alter ego, bringing the same observant humor, tenderness and discretion to film as Mitchell did to writing.

"Joe Gould's Secret" abounds with thoughtful, alert moments. Sequences in which Mitchell nervously encounters his editor, Harold Ross, will ring true to any journalist who's been stuck in the elevator with the boss. And Tucci uses Mitchell's wife, Therese, a photographer, to bring in lonely, loving images of city dwellers that lend "Joe Gould's Secret" a sweetly elegiac tone.

Never being one to buy into the fetish of the close-up, Tucci instead pulls his camera back to observe his characters, letting their full bodies express what their words cannot. A particularly eloquent sequence has Tucci and Holm leaning in and out of the shot as Gould regales Mitchell with a typical shaggy-dog story over equally typical martinis.

While "Joe Gould's Secret" may not be as vivid a portrait of Gould as Mitchell's original stories were, the film does limn a sharp social history of New York in the 1940s, when so many artists, writers and poets were enjoying each other's company -- and booze -- in the city's rathskellers. Alice Neel makes a cameo appearance in the form of Susan Sarandon (the painter was so taken with Gould's animal energy that she depicted him with three penises), as do the poets e.e. cummings and William Carlos Williams, at least as conversational references.

The closing image of "Joe Gould's Secret" will be familiar to anyone who has read "Up in the Old Hotel," an anthology of Mitchell's writing. And it's the perfect image with which to sum up what Tucci has done here, which is to preserve and pay homage to two remarkable men and their equally remarkable relationship, and to a city and way of life that has long since disappeared.

`Joe Gould's Secret'

Starring Ian Holm, Stanley Tucci

Directed by Stanley Tucci

Released by USA Films

Rated R (some language and brief nudity)

Running time 108 minutes

Sun score ***

From the book `Joe Gould's Secret'

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