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[whitespace] Ian Holm, Stanley Tucci
Sunday in the Park With Joe: Ian Holm (right) plays a novelist who can't seem to finish his magnum opus; Stanley Tucci plays the journalist who chronicles the old man's literary struggles.

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A journalist falls for a writer's dreams in 'Joe Gould's Secret'

By Richard von Busack

STANLEY TUCCI, director of The Big Night, makes a handsome rebound after the catastrophe The Imposters with Joe Gould's Secret, a sobering true story of New York in the 1940s. As in three out of four actor-directed movies, it's too much of a good thing. Still, that monumental actor Ian Holm shows some of the divine madness he demonstrated in the television version of King Lear. Here, he plays a derelict literary bum/monarch, a king with lice. Watching Bob Hoskins in Felicia's Journey, I was convinced that they had found the perfect actor to play Alfred Hitchcock. Watching Joe Gould's Secret, I'm equally convinced that Holm is the perfect actor to play Karl Marx--short, massive, crabby but fascinating, with a huge fan-shaped beard and the glint of a new world in his eyes.

Holm's Joe Gould is a Greenwich Village character, a self-described professor who's convinced a good chunk of literary society that he's hatching a masterpiece. His unfinished book is a million-word collection of human conversation that will be one of the great works of this or any age. Tucci plays the real-life New Yorker reporter Joseph Mitchell, who finds Gould in a bar and profiles him. Gould becomes the toast of at least that part of town south of Union Square, and he lands an anonymous patron who pays for his cheap flophouse lodgings.

Mitchell has something missing in his otherwise fine sensibility as a writer. He's a chronicler of "the would-bes, the has-beens and the God knows what." Maybe, having come from a moneyed family background, he seemingly doesn't recognize a fibber, a scrounger when he sees one. The tragedy of Gould's life--his self-delusion--is easy for anyone else to see; once his character is known; it's also easy to predict his fate. It's the telling, not the tale, that makes the first two-thirds of the film very good. Tucci's fine, soft Southern accent sets him up as one of the most soulful yet naïve writers since Holly Martins in The Third Man. Tucci the director spins out the story with atmospheric and yet inexpensive recreations of the long dead Manhattan. Evan Lurie's soundtrack helps deepen the mood.

And there's a twist in the tale that, to a writer, seems as scary a fate as anything that befell an Edgar Allen Poe character. The name Joseph Mitchell may not be familiar, but if you're acquainted with The New Yorker lore, you'll remember his story. Not to blow the film's punch line, but Mitchell's later career was either an example of the boundless compassion of the old-time New Yorker management, compassion that surpasseth human understanding ... or an example of William Shawn's idiot largesse. The finale becomes at first too much, then too, too much, then too, too, too much. I don't know if Tucci intended this as a Gothic lesson on the unwiseness of talking out a book you're working on, but Holm is as remarkable as Edward G. Robinson ever was, and the core of Joe Gould's Secret, this story of betrayal, stays with you like an ice cube in the stomach.

Joe Gould's Secret (R; 108 min.), directed by Stanley Tucci, written by Howard A. Rodman, based on articles by Joseph Mitchell, photographed by Maryse Alberti and starring Tucci and Ian Holm, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the June 29-July 5, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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