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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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Was he a brilliant and misunderstood bohemian, or merely a mentally deranged hobo with scant moments of lucidity? This is one of the questions broached by this thought provoking period piece based on a true story. Joe Gould (Ian Holm) became a local legend of sorts in the 1940's and 50's as he lived on the streets of Greenwich Village in Manhattan during that section's most outlandish and offbeat era. According to the legend, Gould was writing the `Oral History of the World' supposedly scratching down his thoughts and the conversations of common folks in composition books. This story follows the relationship developed between Joe Gould, a Harvard graduate cum decadent; and Joe Mitchell (Stanley Tucci), a prominent writer for New Yorker Magazine during the period, who wrote the book on which this film is based.
Gould was generally well liked, and he could be charming and engaging when doing his bohemian act for the locals, who were wont to enjoy the raw humanity of it. Thus, despite his disheveled and odoriferous attributes, he was often welcome at parties given by affluent socialites. He had a symbiosis with the neighborhood, a mutually parasitic relationship where he used them for their money and they used him to indulge their desire to consider themselves avant-garde by consorting with free spirits.
He easily manipulated various residents into contributing significant alms, which he would promptly squander on alcohol. This became even truer after Mitchell wrote an article about him in New Yorker Magazine and his celebrity mushroomed. The film tells his story without over-romanticizing him and unabashedly presents his dark side (bordering on sociopathic) marked by alcoholism, temper tantrums, belligerent outbursts and generally disturbed behavior.
Stanley Tucci's direction of this film again bears his trademark attention to human details, presenting a very perceptive look at the human condition. As always, his work with the actors to get the right feelings on film was excellent. He also captured the period precisely in his use of costumes, props and Greenwich Village locations, most of which are unchanged from 50 years ago. He does a good job of peeling away Gould's façade, which begins with a look at him as a colorful and interesting character and reveals him ultimately as grossly imbalanced.
If there were criticisms of Tucci's presentation, they would have to be about pace and content. The film isn't excessively long, but at times, it feels that way. Though this was a wonderfully in-depth character study, it trod over the same ground repeatedly, rather than offering an array of fresh perspectives.
The acting was exceptional. Ian Holm gives a brilliant performance as Gould. It is difficult to imagine a more complex and demanding character. Holm was engaging, charming, cantankerous, belligerent and occasionally insightfully deep. Holm was fully immersed in his character and he gave a truly inspired portrayal. Stanley Tucci was also very good as the sullen and impassive journalist. His southern accent was only passable, but his genteel southern style was excellent and his conflict and concern came across as genuine.
This film requires a patient and intelligent viewer. I rated it an 8/10 on the strength of the acting and the insightful character study, despite its sluggish pace. If you enjoy human-interest stories and probing character studies, I would recommend you try it.
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