by Brad Nelson
This is one of those sort of avant-garde, artsy-fartsy films that I like but that isn’t for everyone. It’s definitely a think piece. I’m very sure that I still need to watch this a second time in order to form a firm opinion about the themes. This movie’s syntax is not comprised of the usual cookie-cutter clichés, arranged in novel order, but still the same clichés. But I don’t need to watch it a second time to confirm that it is interesting.
Joe Gould is an eccentric, maybe even crazy, man who walks the streets of New York (Greenwich Village, in particular) wearing dirty clothes and a obnoxious, but quite poetic, personality. He’s Kramer, but even odder and more inexplicable. Gould is a homeless beggar who claims to have compiled a gigantic and important oral history of people in and around the city that he has known.
Gould seems to personify the madness of the artist who, in turn, describes the more hidden madness of everyday life among supposedly sane people. Themes such as this make it necessarily difficult, at least for me, to give a pat answer in regards to what this movie is about. But it is at least about crazy life and odd people, and perhaps what normal actual is.
And in Joe Gould we see ourselves. We are all unfinished lives, but lives that are lived at least in part in delusional grandiosity. We might write the official biography of our own lives with as much falsification, self-importance, and delusion as went into Obama’s “Dreams from My Father” or, we suspect, as went into much of Joe Gould’s bravado.
There are some great lines in this movie. One of them is where Joe says about himself something like “I’m crazy because I really do believe I’m Joe Gould.” You have to see that in context, but that will get you to thinking, which is what this movie does in spades. Like I said, I really probably do need to watch this again. This is not Transformers or Iron Man. The writers and director were clever and thoughtful people.
This movie feels unfinished…and that means they got it pretty much right. There’s a refined and subtle sensibility to Joe Gould’s Secret that I like. Although Joe is a boisterous character who oozes personality, he doesn’t come across to me as a caricature of “the crazy old man who spouts poetry on the street corner.” The writers, and Ian Holm as Joe Gould, have done an amazing job of bringing Joe Gould to life. And yet he still remains a mystery, which is exactly why this movie strikes me as authentic. If we had really understood Joe, he would have indeed lapsed into little more than a movie caricature.
Susan Sarandon has a memorable scene in this while, oddly, Steve Martin has one that is forgettable. Stanley Tucci plays New Yorker reporter, Joe Mitchell, who discovers Joe Gould one day in a restaurant and decides to investigate Gould and write a piece about him. Mitchell is a sympathetic character and doesn’t judge Gould but lets his relationship with him play out to see where it might go.
But even for the Joe Mitchells of the world, there is only so much Joe Gould one can take. And maybe that’s true of Joe Gould himself. And of all of us. We are all trapped somewhat in our own worlds created by our minds, situations, and persona. We play a part and that part is ourselves and it is often a tragedy, but it is not without its deep meaning and even comical moments of self-conceit and puffery. I give this 3-1/4 chest scratches out of 5. Apparently this movie is based on a true story as well. How could it not be?