Joe Gould's Secret
This is a movie of failed promise. It stars Stanley Tucci (who also directed) and Ian Holm as the two main characters, with appearances by Susan Sarandon, Patricia Clarkson, and Steve Martin in small (too small) parts.
SPOILER: I reveal Joe Gould's secret -- I don't think it matters, though.
In my humble opinion Stanley Tucci is one of the two best actors working in this millennium (Robert Downey, Jr. is the other), and Ian Holm is excellent as well -- in fact, all the actors I've mentioned in this movie deserve credit for their excellence. However, Mr. Holm never quite finds his character as Joe Gould, and the other appearing actors have very small parts. Tucci, of course, is fabulous as Joe Mitchell. Although the potential of the movie was great, it yielded much less than the material offered.
The gist of the story is based on reality: Joseph Mitchell was a writer for the New Yorker Magazine whose beat was the off-beat in Manhattan. In the early Fifties he stumbled across Joe Gould, a homeless but brilliant bum who was suffering from some mental problems. Mitchell wrote a New Yorker article about Gould, bringing him to prominence for awhile.
Mr. Holm had a lot going for him in the roll, but he never quite convinced me when he was acting the crazy side of Gould -- who apparently could be lucid but never for long. Mitchell would write an article about what could be the seamy side of New York, and then he moved on to the next off-beat character. Joe Gould objected to being "an article" and then being moved back into obscurity. After Mitchell's article, Gould became one of the talks of the town, people mailed in letters and money to the New Yorker, the letters and loot were passed on to Gould, but then the novelty wore off and Gould sank back into obscurity. Gould did not like that. I assume Mitchell brought a lot of riffraff into the light for 15 minutes of fame, and that all the riffraff then sank back into the dark. Gould, in the movie at least, objected. Unfortunately, the script let him voice his objections and moved on.
In the movie when Gould and Mitchell first met, Gould mentions that his father wanted him to be a physician -- like the father and the grandfather -- but Gould became a reporter instead (before spiraling down to a life on the street). Being a reporter with a Harvard degree, Gould was a disappointment to his father. Mitchell mentions that his father wanted him to carry on the family business in North Carolina, but he was a writer for the New Yorker instead; Gould observes that they both, then, were disappointments to their fathers.
There was a lesson in there that the script entirely misses. Joe Gould tells everyone that he's working on an oral history of the United States and that the works so far is so massive it's unpublishable. Despite many efforts by Mitchell to see a copy, Gould never produces any of the oral history, just some rambling writings of Gould's own observations. It becomes clear that the oral history doesn't exist and never did. At the end of the movie as the credits scroll we learn that the article about Joe Gould is the last thing Mitchell ever did. That he went in to "work" every day for decades and never produced another article for the New Yorker. The same massive writer's block that Joe Gould suffered also inflicted Joe Mitchell. That pairing is never explored; we never understand any hint of what about Gould so affected Mitchell. The movie never shows us a connection that affected Mitchell, and we have no clue what the cause of Mitchell's writer's block was. I understand that in real life no one knew the cause of Mitchell's block, but this is a movie, for pete's sake. Let's have some connection that lets us ponder what it's like being the biographer of a homeless man who then can't shake the change wrought by the experience.
So I had two potential learning experiences: a man being used, then dumped; brought into fame for a few weeks, then dropped back down into obscurity; a disappointment to his father. And second, the effect on the person bringing fame then departing, with the effect on the relationship of the two and the effect on the fame-bringer, a disappointment to his father. These are homeric in their potentialities, and script never went there. William Faulkner would have wrung the entire Civil War out of these premises. (The screenplay is by Howard A. Rodman, based on two books by Mitchell about Gould.)
On the good side, Tucci as director does a wonderful job of recreating the Fifties. I remember wearing the shirts and jackets that we see the little boys wearing. I remember the Vivian Vance perms they show. The courtesy and manners are still there, even in Manhattan.
All that's missing is the connection between Gould and Mitchell that leads Mitchell down the same path as Gould. I'm sorry to say what character development there is in the movie, takes place after it ends when Mitchell finds himself lost in his own mind.