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'SECRET ' NOT QUITE A TREASURE, NOT QUITE ART.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

``Joe Gould's Secret'' is a lovingly realized re-creation of New York's 1940s bohemian scene, based on articles about an exemplary eccentric that Joseph Mitchell wrote for The New Yorker. And like much of that magazine's prose, the movie lovingly and meticulously overstays its welcome.

So does Joe Gould, a homeless genius-in-his-own-mind who depends on the kindness of artists, club owners and assorted would-be scenesters for sustenance. The theatrical, motor-mouthed, emotional and unpredictable Joe, you see, has dedicated his existence to writing a massive ``Oral History of Our Time,'' made up of his encounters and conversations with ordinary men and women, written down from perfect memory in notebooks that Joe keeps stashed at friends' homes all over town. Those who indulge Gould seem uniformly buffaloed by this sometimes amusing, often obnoxious obsessive's grand plan and, at least in how the movie presents it, care for him out of awe more than pity - until, however one views him, he becomes too exasperating to take.

Gould is played by the great British actor Ian Holm (``Brazil,'' ``Alien,'' the Emmy-nominated PBS broadcast of ``King Lear''). Wrapped in multiple layers of raggedy clothes and ever clutching a beat-up portfolio like a holy totem, Holm chews up and spits out the quirk-laden little Joe like a starving actor. It's what they call a tour de force performance, and it's so relentless that it sometimes leaves you feeling like Joe's patience-tested supporters. There are any number of times when the antic elfishness gives way to true and moving expressions of the unstable character's fear and confusion. Still, you wish Holm would've gone easier on the arm-flapping.

Stanley Tucci, who also directed, plays the other Joe: Mitchell, a polite and inquisitive Southern gentleman with a fascination for the city's lowlifes and losers. Mitchell is ever-so-slightly appalled when he can't get rid of Gould after the profile he writes gives the odd fellow the postwar equivalent of Warhol's 15 minutes. But he has genuine concern for the man, too, and as Mitchell grows to suspect that Gould harbors a secret more dire than his hand-to-mouth existence, the writer's own deceptively stable life - loving photographer wife (Hope Davis), two bright little girls, orderly apartment - looks more and more like a cover-up for something, too. But while the film treats us to too much of Gould, you never get the feeling that Mitchell's secrets are examined as they properly should be.

Like he did in his filmmaking debut ``Big Night,'' which was co-directed with Campbell Scott, Tucci excels here at evoking the flavor of a specific, offbeat setting: Greenwich Village between the early century decades of socio-cultural radicalism and the passing parade of modern countercultures that would soon be brought by bop and the beats.

It's a time when having Gould make a scene in your cafe is, as one owner puts it, ``Good for business; a real bohemian for the tourists,'' and when a female artist like Alice Neel, played by Susan Sarandon, could still raise eyebrows with her nude paintings.

It's all very carefully done and unfailingly civilized while maintaining it's own kind of underground grittiness. Even, sometimes, the film is witty. But a museum-piece quality gradually takes over ``Joe Gould's Secret''; not a mustiness, really, but the definite feeling that you've been staring too long at a display while life is taking place somewhere else.

THE FACTS

--The film: ``Joe Gould's Secret'' (R; language, nudity).

--The stars: Ian Holm, Stanley Tucci, Hope Davis, Susan Sarandon, Patricia Clarkson.

--Behind the scenes: Directed by Stanley Tucci. Written by Howard A. Rodman, based on the New Yorker articles by Joseph Mitchell. Produced by Charles Weinstock. Released by USA Films.

--Running time: One hour, 48 minutes.

--Playing: Sunset 5, West Hollywood; Westside Pavilion, West L.A.

--Our rating: Two and one half stars

CAPTION(S):

photo, box

Photo: Director Stanley Tucci, left, and Ian Holm star in ``Joe Gould's Secret.''

Box: THE FACTS (see text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Apr 7, 2000
Words:658
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