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Film review: Joe Gould’s Secret

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It's amazing how much one person — or to be more accurate, one performance — can liven up even the most lackluster movies.

And like it or not, no word better describes "Joe Gould's Secret," Stanley Tucci's biographical portrait of a real-life 1940s Bohemian who, today, is regarded as being both a genius and a madman.

Unfortunately, the actor-turned-filmmaker is unable to pull off this "there's a method to his madness" tale and make it as compelling and interesting as the subject matter probably deserves.

One thing he has managed to do, though, is find the perfect actor to play the film's tricky but pivotal role — veteran British character-actor Ian Holm, whose riveting performance as Gould nearly salvages the whole thing.

The movie begins around the time of the first meeting between then-homeless Gould and the man who eventually became his biographer, New Yorker staff writer Joseph Mitchell (Tucci).

At this point in time, the columnist has been unable to find interesting subjects for his articles — until he meets the dilapidated-looking Gould, whose incoherent mumbling sometimes contains just the slightest trace of intelligence.

So Mitchell decides to befriend this muttering, sputtering mess, who constantly hits up friends and passersby for contributions to "The Joe Gould Fund," which he says will go to support his writing work but which really funds his drinking and smoking habits.

During the course of their conversations, Mitchell also discovers that Gould claims to be working on something called "The Oral History of Our Time," a transcript of the many stories Gould has gleaned from conversations with his fellow New Yorkers.

Needless to say, Mitchell finds ample inspiration and the subsequent article is well-received. As a result, Gould becomes an overnight success and even garners himself a mysterious patron who pays for him to stay in a hotel. But fame also eventually drives a wedge between the two men, as does the fact that Mitchell finally seems ready to move on to his next subject.

Although the film's title would lead you to believe otherwise, much of the film actually seems to revolve around the soft-spoken Mitchell, which is a big mistake.

For one thing, despite the fact that the always-dependable Tucci (who also directed the film) is playing him, he's not nearly as interesting a character as Gould. That's partly due to the fact that Holm turns in such a lovably loony performance, but also because Tucci's part is underdeveloped.

Unfortunately, so are those of the talented but underutilized supporting cast, which includes Hope Davis, Susan Sarandon, Patricia Clarkson and Steve Martin.

By the way, for those who just have to know, the relevance of the film's title is only revealed at the very end of the movie.

"Joe Gould's Secret" is rated R for profane outbursts and other, scattered strong profanities, nudity (brief male full, as well as glimpses of nude artwork) and brief vulgarity (some crude humor and references). Running time: 108 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com