The secret of "Joe Gould's Secret" is the terrific performance by the talented Ian Holm in the titular role. Of course, it will probably remain a secret, save for the few hardy fans who make it to the art-house theaters, since this picture will probably vanish from the theatrical circuit faster than you can say "Bermuda Triangle."
Marking the third directorial effort by actor turned auteur Stanley Tucci - and based on the real life writings (notably "Professor Seagull" and "Joe Gould's Secret") of The New Yorker scribe Joseph Mitchell as adapted by screenwriter Howard A. Rodman (making his feature debut) - this film maintains the lush period look of his previous efforts, the tremendous "Big Night" and the partially successful screwball comedy, "The Impostors."
Faithfully recapturing the aura and appearances of 1940s era Manhattan, the film often looks and feels like a historical still photo. That's not only due to the fabulous work by production designer Andrew Jackness (who worked on Tucci's previous films), cinematographer Maryse Alberti ("Happiness," "Velvet Goldmine") and costume designer Juliet Polcsa ("Return to Paradise," "Big Night"), but also simply because other than Holm's fabulous performance, the film is nearly inert in both pacing and execution.
While the story is moderately intriguing and the titular "secret" makes the viewer stick around awaiting its eventual revelation (but only due to the film's title and not anything in particular that develops in the picture), nothing of much consequence ever occurs.
One can assume that such an approach is deliberate on Tucci's part and perhaps one has to read in between the lines - or in this case, what amount to near still frames in this very statically shot and looking film - to get some deeper meaning and/or veiled subtext that's not readily apparent. The end result, however, is a picture that's only passably entertaining due to its glacial approach at storytelling.
What makes the film work, though, is Ian Holm and his amazing and entirely believable transformation into the title character. Playing the homeless and eccentric bohemian, the performer, best known for his work in "Alien," "Chariots of Fire" and most recently, "The Sweet Hereafter," is initially barely recognizable in the role.
Those sorts of "extreme" characters are the types that most actors would sell their first born for simply because they're meaty enough that most any performer, let alone the very talented type, can really sink their acting chomps into it.
Of course, that's also not only due to the wonderful myriad of playable nuances, tics and other "abnormal" behavior that naturally come with such characters, but also because such cinematic creations, if embodied correctly, can lead to accolades and then awards come that time of the movie season. Although it's still too early in the year to make any such predictions and this film will most likely be long forgotten come that time, Holm should still be congratulated and acknowledged for his terrific effort here.
Stanley Tucci ("William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream," TV's "Murder One"), on the other hand, and while certainly delivering a competent and mostly fault-free performance, easily could have won a role as "Mr. Bland" or "Captain Insomnia" in 1999's misfit superhero comedy, "Mystery Men." Although it could be argued that he's accurately portraying the real-life Mitchell and he certainly isn't horrible in the role by any means, his character's dull demeanor and determined, but near sloth-like investigation of Gould more than counteracts Holm's electric performance. While he believably comes off as an average "Joe" (no pun intended), that doesn't make for very exciting or interesting cinema.
Supporting performances are good for the small amount of time they're given, with Patricia Clarkson ("The Green Mile," "High Art") delivering a good take as one of Gould's "friends" and Hope Davis ("Arlington Road," "Mumford") doing the same as Mitchell's wife. While both Susan Sarandon ("Anywhere But Here," "Stepmom") and Steve Martin ("The Spanish Prisoner," "Roxanne") - in a cameo - are good, their appearances jar the production simply from the viewer thinking, "Hey! That's Steve Martin." Had the two of them been given parts that were more significant and/or had greater screen time, that would not have been as much of a problem, but as it stands, their appearances are a bit distracting.
While there's nothing terribly wrong with this picture that looks gorgeous and features a great performance from Holm, one only wishes it had a little more pizzazz to match the title character's wacky demeanor. Although one can assume the resulting contrast between him and the rest of the film is intentionally staged, it makes for a rather lackluster time at the movies. Decent, but definitely one of those "could've/should've been better" pictures, "Joe Gould's Secret" rates as just a 5 out of 10.