Joe Gould’s Secret

Near the beginning of Joe Gould’s Secret, the New Yorker essayist Joseph Mitchell (Stanley Tucci) is describing his next piece — about a local bar — to his wife. He asks if that sounds boring. She says it depends on what happens; he says nothing happens. She shrugs and says, well, then it depends on the skill of the writer. Or the director, I’d say. In this era of concussive movies deathly afraid of losing the audience’s attention for two seconds, Stanley Tucci has a deep, and deeply satisfying, respect for stories in which nothing much happens. In this movie and his directing debut Big Night (I missed his second, the screwball homage The Impostors), Tucci sets the scene, introduces interesting characters, and then lets us eavesdrop on them for a while. It’s fitting, then, that his new movie is about a pair of eavesdroppers.

Mitchell, a transplant from North Carolina who feels comfortable among the working class and bohemians of New York (this is the ’40s, after all), finds himself drawn to a notorious but well-loved local character — Joe Gould (Ian Holm), a whiskered free spirit who lives on charity (he likes to ask strangers and friends for “contributions to the Joe Gould Fund”) and is assembling an epic oral history of New York. Much like Mitchell, Gould finds truth and nobility in the random snatches of conversation and displays of life he sees and hears on the street. Mitchell and Gould become friends, and the two temperamentally opposite yet fundamentally alike men roam the flophouses and poetry readings of the city.

If done a bit differently — the laid-back Mitchell and the overwrought Gould enter a place, Gould makes a scene, Mitchell shakes his head affectionately and grins — it would feel too much like an odd-couple movie, like too many other films we’ve snored through. But Tucci, directing a screenplay by Howard A. Rodman based on Mitchell’s two New Yorker essays on Gould, approaches the material as a study of two different kinds of observers. Mitchell keeps his distance; Gould gets right in the thick of things, tearing off his clothes at a party, crashing a snobby poetry reading, keeping up a madcap stream of patter. It’s not long before we realize that someone as garrulous as Gould doesn’t make the best listener or chronicler of the language of the streets. He likes the sound of his own voice too much.

We like the sound of his voice, too, thanks to Ian Holm, as explosive here as he was implosive in The Sweet Hereafter. It’s a very actorish performance — it’s a very actorish role — but Holm takes such joy in Gould’s theatrics (while still suggesting the essential despair of the man) that it never reads as overacting. After a while, you see Gould’s rants and exploits as what they are: the cries of a lonely man who refuses to be forgotten. Generously playing straight man in his own movie, Tucci makes Mitchell a kind, soft-spoken man whose patience is considerable but only goes so far. A key confrontation scene between Mitchell and Gould, which uncovers the mystery of the title, is all the more affecting for being low-key.

Adding poignance to Joe Gould’s Secret is Tucci’s fond reanimation of the New York of the ’40s, a city that still had a place for people like Gould. Today, legions of Joe Goulds die on the street unnoticed every day in America, but Tucci doesn’t push this; we see Gould booted from his apartment and covered in sores, but it’s presented as just another fact of Gould’s life. Indeed, most of the movie is refreshingly light and good-hearted; you relax as you realize you’re not going to get any manufactured conflicts or Hollywood plot points (Mitchell has two cutie-pie daughters, and it’s a damn relief to know they’re not going to be kidnapped or something). On the basis of the two I’ve seen, a Stanley Tucci movie is an easygoing experience; you sit back in comfort, knowing you’re in the hands of a director who keeps things simple, loves actors, respects words, respects silence even more, and never goes for sentiment or sensation when he can simply opt for truth.

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