Back in the 1930s, John Steinbeck wrote the definitive book about migrant workers after having worked as a journalist on a series of articles about “The Harvest Gypsies.”
Steinbeck got his information by living with the migrants to get a firsthand view. I've often wondered who would write another Grapes of Wrath about the homeless. It would take a journalist who made intimate contact with the homeless to do such a work. I am discounting Midnight Cowboy and Basquiat, because these two superior films don't strive to get into the lifestyle and thinking of the common homeless person.
New Yorker journalist Joseph Mitchell did make intimate contact with an eccentric homeless man, who was the subject of a Mitchell article entitled “Professor Seagull” in 1942 and the book Joe Gould's Secret (published in 1996).
Now we have Stanley Tucci's film version, based on the book. Though it's worthwhile, do not expect another Grapes of Wrath with this work—whether in print or on celluloid. The promise for dealing with the homeless common man is there, but Joe Gould's Secret falls short in this vein.
It begins as Joseph Mitchell (Stanley Tucci, Big Night) reveals that he has two things in common with Joe Gould, the eccentric exhibitionist bohemian who will be the centerpiece of the story.
Similar to Andy Kaufman, Gould may be insane, yet he may also be brilliant! We first meet Gould (Ian Holm) in a diner when he barges in, takes a seat at the counter, bellows out orders for his soup, pours half a bottle of ketchup into it, and leaves after a few slurps.
We soon discover that Gould is also a writer, working on a project he calls “An Oral History” that includes street observations and conversations that sound remarkably profound.
One common bond we find: Mitchell and Gould both seem to be pursuing a similar goal. Each seeks to record current history and reveal interesting pieces about interesting people encountered in New York City. It's just a difference of style. Mitchell uses his intellect (otherwise, he couldn't work for The New Yorker), and Gould waxes more poetic, occasionally sounding like a modern-day Walt Whitman.
(Remember: Mitchell states that they have two things in common. The second will not be revealed until the end titles, and will give meaning to the entire film.)
The basic premise of Joe Gould's Secret rests upon the idea that Mitchell becomes fascinated with Gould and decides to do a feature story on him. Gould initially intrigues Mitchell by guessing that his father never approved of his writing profession. This is confirmed in the following scene, when Mitchell reveals that his father thought collecting watermelon seeds was the only thing a newspaper was good for.
Don't expect a lot of action. If you haven't taken your gingko biloba, you may find yourself nodding a few times; Joe Gould's Secret plays rather slowly. It's more about character than anything.
Ian Holm gets the “sexy” part of acting like a bizarre roller coaster ride. He will sound very serious and profound one minute and begin enraged shouting or darting-off the next. He collects money for the Joe Gould Fund, and gets totally excited when Mitchell’s article about him comes out in The New Yorker.
Gould's 15 minutes of fame translates into getting an anonymous sponsor so he can stay in a regular hotel room, and into receiving donations through the mail. Gould shows obvious glee with the enclosed dollar bills and makes himself quite a nuisance by continually visiting Mitchell to get his mail.
This causes Mitchell discomfort. He does not like direct confrontation, so Mitchell has his secretary deal with Gould while he hides in the office.
Tucci is much more conservative and guarded with his character. Not only does he attempt to avoid confrontation, but he attempts to be noncommittal. The most obvious example occurs during Mitchell's conversations with his editor, when he has a difficult time finishing his sentences. His editor humorously remarks that he is glad he writes better than he talks.
Though Holm gets the juicy parts with his eccentric character, the real focal point lies with Tucci's character.
This may be one of the main problems. His character seems too detached to make the story believable. Rather harsh when considering Joe Gould's Secret is based on a true-life account. We simply do not see what's going on within the journalist's mind. There's an early scene in which Mitchell's daughters ask their father what he is writing about, and when he tells them it's about a bar owner, they respond that it sounds “boring.” That one scene is very telling.
Stanley Tucci plays his character as a rather uninteresting one, even though he is the only character who actually changes. Where is the motivation and passion we'd expect from a dedicated journalist? It seems Tucci's changes come from within, but they are done so subtly, we are not privy to the reasons.
The film fails to get inside the mind of either Mitchell or Gould. We are introduced and see them on the surface, but are never granted access to the internal thinking of either character. Nor do we ever fully understand the intimate connection between the two.
Despite the lack of energy shown by Tucci's character, there are some nice touches in Joe Gould's Secret. Mitchell's narration about the real-life street people from Gould's writings, as we see the people on screen, is reminiscent of Walt Whitman's views of the common man.
There is a nicely drawn parallel between Mitchell's writings about the people of New York and his wife's black-and-white photos of the people.
Another positive contribution is made by Susan Sarandon in a cameo role as artist Alice Neel, who once painted Gould as an exhibitionist with multiple genitals. (Sarandon generally warms the screen of any movie she appears in.)
Overall Joe Gould's Secret will work for most art-house lovers, but it's neither especially memorable nor especially entertaining. The concept is intriguing and the character study is interesting; perhaps it will give aspiring filmmakers hope—the definitive movie about homeless and eccentric urbanites has yet to be made.