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Joe Gould's Secret
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by iF Magazine

"They can't make the means mesh with the desired end."
3 stars

At the very end of JOE GOULD'S SECRET, after the final shot, there's a postscript that has the same visceral effect as climactic revelations in THE USUAL SUSPECTS or THE SIXTH SENSE. In this case, we haven't necessarily made wrong assumptions about what we've seen so far, but the ultimate outcome is unexpected. The finale is all the more startling because, up to this point, JOE GOULD'S SECRET doesn't always do an especially adroit job of surprising us. Adapted from two fact-based articles published in New Yorker magazine by Joseph Mitchell, the film seems to be aiming for a kind of classy verisimilitude in its portrait of 1950s New York, beginning with a newsreel-like view of the city.

Given the loudness of the title figure's personality, it's understandable that director Stanley Tucci and screenwriter Howard A. Rodman want to be subtle and non-melodramatic, but they try so hard that a certain stiffness comes into play.

Joseph Mitchell (Tucci) enjoys a solid reputation as a staff writer at the New Yorker, specializing in tales of local eccentrics. When he first encounters Joe Gould (Ian Holm) cadging free food from a local restaurant, Mitchell is intrigued and starts making inquiries. Although he is currently homeless, Gould once attended Harvard and has a reputation in New York's art and literary circles as an eccentric genius.

Gould has no regular job, delights in disrupting staid functions and survives as best he can on donations to "the Joe Gould Fund." Gould's magnum opus, which he's been working on for 26 years, is entitled "The Oral History of Our Time," a compilation of conversations he's heard going on around him. Mitchell is fascinated by this document and befriends Gould, making the latter famous in a New Yorker article.

Gould is delighted to have a "biographer," but develops a habit of showing up at Mitchell's office unannounced and remaining to ramble on for hours. Mitchell tries to help Gould - and get him to back off a bit by finding an eager publisher for "The Oral History," but things don't go as planned.

The dynamics of JOE GOULD'S SECRET are poignant and dramatic, but the filmmakers are so painstaking in delineating Mitchell's shyness (he's articulate as a writer but a cautious speaker) and Gould's mercurial nature that we can see the calculations involved in the drama. Tucci has a decorous, gentlemanly sweetness as Mitchell, overlaid with a very slightly patronizing air that fits the situation. Gould is a particularly difficult figure to put on the screen.

Holm does a magnificent job of bringing him to full, ornery, fierce life, but precisely because of this, Gould is as hard to spend time with onscreen as it's likely he was in life. The film seems to miscalculate his appeal, showing us how enchanted Mitchell and others are with his pronouncements while we're wondering how well we'd deal with a similar figure in our own lives.

As Mitchell becomes increasingly uncomfortable in Gould's company, we're way ahead of the journalist, so that the beats about alienation play as overkill. Susan Sarandon projects a suitably bohemian attitude as a painter who admires Gould and Steve Martin has a beautifully calibrated scene as a friend of Mitchell's who becomes caught up in the proceedings.

The denouement packs a hefty punch, but even this doesn't quite seem the logical outcome of all that's preceded it. The hints we get make sense with hindsight, but the emphasis of JOE GOULD'S SECRET lies elsewhere.

Tucci and Co. want to use sensitivity and subtlety to put across a period study of a man suffering from schizophrenia, loneliness and an inability to empathize with others; they can't make the means mesh with the desired end. By the end of SECRET, we've learned something we hadn't anticipated, but we feel that we were invited to put together a different puzzle altogether. ---Abbie Bernstein - iF Magazine (http://ifmagazine.ifctv.com)

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=3861&reviewer=119
originally posted: 04/27/00 00:24:55
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User Comments

2/12/04 viewer B intelligent and touching 5 stars
1/12/02 peter ruggle a touching portrait of a failure whose charade frees him and us to see the human tragedy. 4 stars
3/19/01 Tom The human/social animal conflicted. Self realization in a society that demands less. 4 stars
1/08/01 Monday Morning I only watched about 30 minutes, but to that point it was deadly boring. 2 stars
4/13/00 Louis I am making this the number one movie of the week 5 stars
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  07-Apr-2000 (R)



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