Stanley Tucci is clearly a fastidious filmmaker. The well-
known character actor brought the atmosphere of a small
restaurant to vibrant life in his delightful first feature
“Big Night” (which he co-directed with Campbell Scott); and
though his sophomore effort, “The Impostors,” proved a
misguided shipboard farce, its design had clearly been
carefully worked out. Now he has recreated the milieu of
1950s New York City with exquisite care to tell the story–
based on fact–of the curious relationship that develops
between Joe Mitchell, a staff writer for Harold Ross’ New
Yorker magazine, and Joe Gould, an eccentric hobo who’s
become a darling of some of the city’s cognoscenti not only
because he’s well-educated and sometimes very entertaining,
but because he’s known to be writing a huge “Oral History”
of his time, based on conversations with hundreds, if not
thousands, of ordinary people. In the process of composing
a profile of this denizen of the Big Apple, Joe becomes
inextricably attached to the curious fellow, unable to shake
him even when his hectoring presence has grown wearisome.

There might be the germ of an insightful and evocative film in
the tale of such an unlikely team, but though he’s obviously
put much effort into the attempt, Tucci hasn’t managed to make
his version of it work. Simply put, he tells the tale in so
stately and deliberate a fashion that at times the picture
seems to fall into a comatose state. That might not have been
fatal if the script had some gigantic payoff at the close, but
such is not the case; it turns out that Joe Gould’s secret
is just what one should have expected all along, and the whole
story has been much ado about very little. The letdown the
audience feels at the end is palpable.

The performances are curiously unsatisfying as well. Ian
Holm, a marvelous and underrated actor who enlivened “Big
Night” and should have at least been nominated for an Oscar
for his astonishing turn in Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter”
(and who’s done fine work in a couple of David Cronenberg’s
films, too) acts the title figure so strenuously, and with such
a mixture of canniness and frenzy, that the bum comes perilously
close to caricature. One can appreciate the attractions of
this sort of flamboyant, craziness-and-tears kind of role for
an actor, but Holm hasn’t found a way to make Gould truly
endearing, and his performance never ceases to seem anything
more than a histrionic stunt. Tucci, meanwhile, is so laid-
back as the writer who becomes Joe’s reluctant autobiographer
that he practically disappears on the screen, rather like the
shadowy William Alland did as the newsreel investigator in
“Citizen Kane.” Alland had an excuse, though: his face was
continually obscured. Tucci manages to become a cipher even
when he’s the pictorial center of the action.

Nor has the director helped things by casting such well-known
performers as Susan Sarandon and Steve Martin in cameo roles,
the former as an artist who’s one of Joe’s patrons and the
latter as a publisher who wants to print his work. The two
stars just seem to be playing dress-up, and neither is in the
least convincing.

Still, you have to admire Tucci’s eye and give him credit for
the almost painterly compositions that fill many of the
moments of “Joe Gould.” (There’s also one conversation scene
between Mitchell and Joe that connoisseurs will love, in
which the camera stays resolutely glued to the center of the
table they’re sitting at while the two men pop in and out of
the frame as they discourse–a sort of tongue-in-cheek
mimicking of the effect of video pan-and-scanning.)

A pity, then, that the picture, like its lead character,
eventually becomes so aggravating that it long overstays its
welcome. You just want it to end, and when it eventually
does, it’s with a whimper rather than a bang.