Published Apr 01, 2000Movies that over-indulge in nostalgia end up having the opposite effect - they become forgettable. I can barely remember one scene from Woody Allen's Radio Days, and Stanley Tucci's new film Joe Gould's Secret is similarly misty-eyed about old New York (in this case it's the 40s). This story of the relationship between a cantankerous but scholarly homeless man named Joe Gould (Ian Holm), and his biographer, New Yorker writer Joe Mitchell (Tucci), is pleasing and well-intentioned, but it lacks vitality. It's good natured and listless at the same time and every scene has a wistful, "wouldn't it be nice" quality to it.
Despite how it looks, this isn't exactly one of those movies about learning life lessons from a rumpled old street person. It thankfully avoids that cliche, and instead becomes a veiled plea for better funding for the arts in America (I guessed this when I saw that Susan Cradle Will Rock Sarandon had a supporting role). Joe Gould survives by taking informal contributions from New York's close-knit community of poets and artists who want to see him complete his as yet unseen magnum opus - an "oral history of our time" that he claims is three times longer than the Holy Bible. All they actually see of his alleged genius is that he shows up at parties, rips his shirt off, and shouts out things like, "I used to be a Buddhist, but now I am a nudist!"
There are a lot of missed opportunities in this movie. Hope Davis is criminally under-used in a wifey role, and I wanted to see a lot more of the infamous workings of the New Yorker under the editorship of Harold Ross (we only catch glimpses of it). But more than that, Joe Gould's Secret just doesn't find an engaging way to tell this story. It's full of period detail and sensitive performances, but the drama is thin, and the humour only inspires a smile or two. It all feels like it would have worked better as an hour on PBS during a pledge drive, rather than a feature film.