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Joe Gould's Secret

Joe Gould is a true-life character made briefly famous in a couple of magazine profiles penned by the New Yorker's legendary Joseph Mitchell. Gould, a shabby old bohemian gent who's slowly going mad as he gathers up oral histories from denizens of the city. He's a kind of whirling dervish of the street -- charming one minute and raging abusively the next.

Story

This is another case of character substituting for plot. Gould's fragile relationship with Mitchell drives the tale, and though there are plenty of powerful dramatic moments, the film often feels inert. We're witnessing a mind coming apart, along with the often ambivalent sympathies of a man who's bearing witness with us. But Gould's big secret is not nearly the payoff the film deserves.

Acting

Ian Holm is a force of nature, surely one of the best actors alive -- a member of that rare breed who disappears completely into a role. As the volatile Gould, he ranges from endearing to terrifying. He can shift tempo and mood while delivering lunatic lines that would make other actors shrivel. He IS the movie. Stanley Tucci finely draws the affable if overshadowed Mitchell, but Hope Davis could have used more screen time to explore what could have been the fascinating character of Mitchell's photographer wife. Susan Sarandon as Greenwich Village painter Alice Neel gets barely more than a cameo here, but it's a colorful one.

Direction

Tucci again doubles as director (and co-writer with Howard Rodman), putting him in the same challenging position as that other obsessive New Yorker, Woody Allen. After the critical success of Tucci's equally intimate (and much jollier) "Big Night," it's natural to compare it to "Joe Gould's Secret," which could have used some of that tight comic rhythm. However, Tucci scores big points for painterly impressions of postwar Manhattan and casting Holm then setting him loose upon Gould's fractured psyche.

Bottom Line

Holm is where the heart is.