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Digging Into A 'Gould' Mine

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2000


    'Joe Gould's Secret' Stanley Tucci, left, plays a writer captivated by the mysterious Joe Gould (Ian Holm).
(2000 USA)
"Joe Gould's Secret" trumpets a marvelous paean to an increasingly endangered species: the word, whether spoken, written or simply overheard. In the guise of a brainy, superbly acted buddy movie, it also draws a nostalgic portrait of New York in the '40s and, coincidentally, comments on the hurried pace and incivility of our own here and now.

In his third film, director Stanley Tucci makes a persuasive argument that the world was a far better place before voice mail replaced receptionists. And a safer, more collegial one before road rage and the cell phone. And you could still smoke cigarettes without realizing the consequences. Never mind that World War II was raging over there and that hobos like the real-life Joe Gould (played with plenty of pizazz by Ian Holm) called the city sidewalks home.

Gould, a brash, gab-gifted egotist who imagines himself to be quite a gifted writer, was twice profiled by Joseph Mitchell (Tucci), a genteel North Carolinian who wrote for the New Yorker. In fact, Mitchell's two articles provided a blueprint for Howard A. Rodman's thoughtful screenplay about the unlikely 10-year friendship between this dissimilar pair.

Mitchell, a talented writer known for his stories about quirky characters, is so inarticulate in the movie that even strangers routinely finish his sentences for him. But words spill from his pen. Gould, on the other hand, can't say enough about his work in progress, "The Oral History of Our Time," on which he's spent the last 26 years filling thousands of black notebooks. He's a natural-born orator who speaks in paragraphs and possesses the vocabulary of a thesaurus. He also claims to converse with sea gulls.

The film gets underway when Mitchell, a writer without a subject, first spies Gould mooching a bowl of soup at a Greenwich Village diner. A ketchup lover, the hobo empties the bottle into his soup and is reprimanded by the owner. Gould reacts as if he'd just discovered a mouse in his broth, sticks up his nose, condemns the owner and storms off. Harrumph.

Mitchell quickly discovers that Gould is no ordinary cadger but a Boston-bred, Harvard-educated linguist who took to the streets to complete his "Oral History." Because his project is so all-consuming, he refuses to seek employment. He scrapes by with a lot of help from his bohemian friends, who make frequent contributions to the "Joe Gould Fund." The fund's administrator and beneficiary spends most of the dough on booze.

After Mitchell's first story, "Professor Seagull," is published, Gould becomes a minor celebrity with his own table at the Minetta Tavern and a cheap pad courtesy of an anonymous patron. Mitchell may be through with the story, but Gould doesn't want to let go. He becomes a noisy, demanding fixture in the writer's spartan office, and Mitchell wants him out of his life.

When he complains to his wife, Therese (Hope Davis), she reminds him that "the stories don't stop just because the writer stops writing," causing him to reassess his attitude. Maybe this emotionally arid intellectual is his brother's keeper after all.

Deeper psychological issues go begging, so it's never quite clear what pulled the two men together for 10 years. Opposites attract, yes, but maybe it goes deeper than that. According to the movie's postscript, Mitchell never wrote another word after he finished the second profile. Could Gould have been his muse?

JOE GOULD'S SECRET (108 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for language and brief nudity.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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