Cineplexes are filled with movies about people falling in love, coming of age, getting off death row, and, in general, doing stuff. Directors don’t yell “Action!” for nothing. But then there’s Stanley Tucci, New York’s leading character actor turned indie lensman, who gravitates toward characters tormented by perfectionism – people who want to do what they’re doing so badly that they somehow end up doing nothing. If it seems counterintuitive for an American filmmaker to seem so anti-success, well, that’s a subject that also interests Tucci. “I don’t think that every movie has to have a happy ending, or be about somebody’s success story,” the director argues. “That’s boring.”
Tucci’s new film, Joe Gould’s Secret (which opens this Friday), is a monument to inaction, a tribute to the stillborn creative act – much like his debut, Big Night. “You always make the same goddamn movie,” Tucci told me when I was visiting the Gould set in Greenpoint. While Big Night followed two restaurateur brothers who aren’t particularly good at staying in business, Gould follows New Yorker scribe Joseph Mitchell (Tucci), who famously profiled Joe Gould (Ian Holm), a Village bohemian and would-be writer, in 1942 and later in 1964 – after which Mitchell never published again. It’s hardly buoyant cinematic fare, yet Tucci is happy to make it as quiet as he can. On the surface, at least, nothing happens – except failure.
Tucci is far more productive than his characters, yet he’s charmed by their ineffectiveness. “People said to me, with Big Night, ‘What if Frank Sinatra showed up?’ That’s not the point. “Nobody shows up. It’s the process that’s interesting to me, not the result,” he says. “Both movies are not so much about underachievers as they’re about artists struggling to create. They’re both very different movies, and yet they end up the same.”
When Tucci finishes shooting the scene – one of many with Mitchell and Gould at Goody’s tavern – he watches the video playback on a tiny monitor: “How come this looks …” He stops, realizing he’s seen it all before. “These positions are the same ones from Big Night, the scene at the bar! It’s all the same! It’s all the same! The same fucking redundant piece of shit!”
There’s a pause, a gulp of air. “Okay,” Tucci says. “Let’s get moving.” The camera rolls. True to form, he doesn’t yell “Action!”