Joe Gould’s Secret

We’re well into “Joe Gould’s Secret” before we realize: Oh, yeah, there’s supposed to be a secret in this movie, isn’t there? The characters are so engrossing that, despite the languid pace, we’re never left wanting for more.

Stanley Tucci directed the film, which is based on a true story, and stars as Joe Mitchell, a writer for the New Yorker in the 1940s. Mitchell is genteel and soft-spoken, a true Southern gentleman, who writes human-interest pieces about the city’s many interesting characters.

Right up his alley is Joe Gould (Ian Holm), a man both well-educated and erudite (someone “took up a cudgel in my defense at a soiree,” he says) who is homeless, apparently by choice. He’s also a bit daft. None of this distinguishes him from a lot of New York, of course; what catches Mitchell’s eye is that Gould is writing an “oral history” of Manhattan — millions of words of overheard conversations and observations which he has jotted down in dozens of composition books.

Mitchell becomes Gould’s “biographer,” as he calls him, following him around for several days as Gould hits up friends for “contributions to the Joe Gould Fund,” and locating the composition books that he has left with several different people all over the city.

When the story is over and published in the New Yorker, that’s the end of Mitchell’s concern. Gould, however, has latched onto him and won’t let go. The non-confrontational Mitchell is too polite to give him the big brush-off.

A counterman at a diner sums it up well early on: “Truth be told, we’re all freaks,” he says. “We’re all freaks together.” In other words, don’t be too surprised by Joe Gould’s outbursts, frank manner and occasionally embarrassing public behavior, because he’s probably not too different from me or you.

Joe Mitchell discovers this, slowly. Despite the many contrasts between the Joes — mild-mannered and outrageous, affluent and poor, shy and extroverted — Mitchell sees quite a bit of himself in Gould.

Holm and Tucci turn in outstanding performances. They are surrounded by supporting characters — Hope Davis as Mitchell’s wife, for example — but it’s their movie all the way. A character-driven drama such as this lives or dies by its lead actors, and both men give sympathetic, loving portrayals.

There is a secret in “Joe Gould’s Secret,” but don’t waste time wondering about it. It’s not exactly earth-shattering, nor is it unexpected. Like much of the movie, it’s sublime and understated, and pleasant to behold.

B+ (; R, abundant harsh profanity, one scene of non-sexual nudity.)