At its best, Joe Gould’s Secret, starring Ian Holm and its director, Stanley Tucci, and based on a pair of legendary New Yorker profiles by Joseph Mitchell, has some of the same qualities as Mitchell’s prose: plangent intelligence and an empathy that’s practically a state of grace. Mitchell’s profiles of Gould, the Harvard-educated Greenwich Village cadger and layabout and crackbrained philosopher, were written 22 years apart, with “Professor Seagull” appearing in 1942 and “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964, seven years after Gould’s death. Gould claimed to be compiling the longest book ever written, An Oral History of the World, which would give voice to everyone he encountered, especially the lowlifes and the dispossessed and the banished. He fancied himself a gutter Gibbon, and his antics, such as imitating seagulls, whose speech he believed he had deciphered, or performing a Chippewa dance in the middle of a Village soirée, were also his shtick. In the forties in New York, it was possible for someone like Gould to play the performing monkey for radical bohemia and make just enough to get by. He was even welcomed as a regular into some of the local clubs and hangouts because his “authenticity” drew in the tourists looking to do a little slumming with the art set. He got close to the likes of E. E. Cummings, who wrote a poem about him, and a snatch of his musings was once published in the magazine The Dial, which first published The Waste Land.
In the movie, which was scripted by Howard A. Rodman, Ian Holm’s Joe Gould isn’t quite as yammery as he appeared on the page. It would have been off-putting if he were. Gould lives in Mitchell’s prose as a “character” of genius – the Flying Dutchman of the Village – but on the screen his yowlings have been brought down to a manageable level. Holm’s Gould is a character, all right, but he’s also a believable person. The art of Holm’s performance, of the entire movie, in fact, is in the way it humanizes the guy’s weirdnesses and caterwaulings so we can spot the man beneath the grimy, exfoliating beard and rheumy eyes. There is no more satisfying moment in current movies than the one here where Mitchell first walks over to Gould for an interview and the old sot’s face expands into delight like one of those speeded-up shots of a flower unfolding.
There is a tendency in movies of this sort to place a nimbus around such a man, and Joe Gould’s Secret doesn’t entirely escape that trap. Gould is portrayed not just as a figure of resonant derangement but also as something more: a too sensitive soul who suffers for our bourgeois sins. Gould may be a dissembler in the particulars, but mainly he is shown to be a truth-teller, which is what we, too, would be if we weren’t hemmed in by fuddy-duddy convention. In fact, so goes the movie, if we look within ourselves, we may perhaps discover our own inner Joe Gould. “He’s a freak,” says a cop about him to the proprietor of a diner Gould frequents. “We’re all freaks,” comes the reply. This is a disservice to Joe Gould, who could out-freak just about anybody.
The film also sets up a simpatico relationship between Gould and Mitchell – the two Joes – that’s a bit too freaky-deaky. We’re supposed to see both men as loners who feel at home only among other loners. Gould is an expatriate of illustrious Massachusetts lineage; Mitchell is a refugee from the South, from North Carolina, and he retains a Southerner’s slow-cooked courtliness. Mitchell is shown with his wife (Hope Davis) and two daughters in scenes of snuggly harmony but, perhaps unintentionally, these moments feel weightless, as if we were observing a charade of what domestic bliss should be. Still, the hokiness of this lonely-hearts-club stuff is greatly alleviated by the extraordinary subtlety of the performers, particularly Tucci, who manages the extraordinary feat of turning a sounding board into a feeling, full-fledged character. There is a moment halfway through the film when Mitchell, weary of being hounded by Gould, hides from him in the New Yorker building while a receptionist lies about the writer’s whereabouts, and the riven look on Tucci’s face shows you how hollow Mitchell feels at that moment. Very few movies have ever dramatized as well as this one how a subject can take over a writer. Gould gets to Mitchell, not just as the subject of a profile but on a deeper, more elusive level; he’s spooked by him, by the unreachableness of him. Gould is like some avenging imp who challenges Mitchell’s complacencies about his profession. In approaching Gould and writing about him, Mitchell has entered into another person’s life, and now, both literally and figuratively, he can’t shake the guy. Noting at the end that Mitchell, who died in 1996, never published anything after his final Gould piece, the filmmakers make perhaps too large and sentimental a presumption about the men’s relationship, but the presumption also has the ring of truth. If Joe Gould in this film is a bit like one of the mad, delusional barflies in The Iceman Cometh, then Joseph Mitchell is like that play’s Larry Slade, who, alone in the end, is stripped of all illusion. He knows Joe Gould’s secret, and he’s stricken by it.