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Around 1940, New Yorker staff writer Joe Mitchell meets Joe Gould, a Greenwich Village character who cadges meals, drinks, and contributions to the Joe Gould Fund and who is writing a voluminous Oral History of the World, a record of 20,000 conversations he's overheard. Mitchell is fascinated with this Harvard grad and writes a 1942 piece about him, "Professor Seagull," bringing Gould some celebrity and an invitation to join the Greenwich Village Ravens, a poetry club he's often crashed. Gould's touchy, querulous personality and his frequent dropping in on Mitchell for hours of chat lead to a breakup, but the two Joes stay in touch until Gould's death and Mitchell's unveiling of the secret. Written by
In my home town, I never felt at home. In New York, New York City, in Greenwich Village, down among the cranks, and the misfits, and the one runners, and the has-beens, and the might-have-beens, and the would-bes, and the never-wills, and the God-knows-whats, I have always felt at home.
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It's no accident that the opening scene of "Joe Gould's Secret" is an all-American family having a normal conversation over breakfast. The head of this household, author Joseph (Joe) Mitchell (director Stanley Tucci) is about to have his world turned upside-down by a person whom he's at first merely intrigued by, but then finds himself friends with: Joe Gould, a homeless beggar who "speaks seagull." Gould (Ian Holm) is himself an author, claiming to have recorded a staggering volume recounting the conversations of strangers he calls the 'Oral History' or simply 'O.H.' One portion of the OH is his own thoughts on these conversations, which he keeps with different people he knows all over New York City. The other is the actual conversations, which he claims to have hidden away under lock and key. Gould won't let anyone read it because it's too personal to him. Over the course of the story, Mitchell starts to suspect that these writings don't even exist. He also finds that he's got a lot more in common with this mentally ill tramp than he'd care to admit.
The heart of the story is the friendship between Gould and Mitchell. Both men are well portrayed and given great depth by the actors who play them. That the script is the best of any produced this year doesn't hurt either. Mitchell treats Gould as a story he's writing, as merely an interesting character for people to read about, and not a human being. Mitchell thinks he's done Gould a great service, but finds that all he's done is take away even more of Gould's humanity. Most of his `friends' treat him in a similar fashion: they love how he entertains them with his craziness, but when it comes to helping him, the most they're willing to do is make a contribution to the "Joe Gould fund." Holm's performance is mesmerizing. Behind all of Gould's ravings is a sadness that he always manages to keep just below the surface. Holm brings across several levels of a man's personality, sometimes in no more than a glance. His work here is a perfect, once-in-a-lifetime achievement I hope he is remembered for.
There is much more to Joe Gould's Secret than a message about how we treat the homeless in America. It has so many levels, you could watch it several times and find a different story in it each time. Tucci has several points to make, but doesn't do it at the expense of storytelling. His love and understanding of the story and characters shines through, like a kid finding a stray puppy, running home with it, and announcing, "look what I found!"
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