Shorter, less immediately imposing, than most great actors, Ian Holm has the devious, squirrelly look of someone who’s perpetually plotting to win and hold your attention. In Joe Gould’s Secret, he delivers a flinty tour de force as the title character, a jabberingly literate homeless man in early-’40s New York who may be crazy, and may also be a genius. Joe, a rascally Walt Whitman in the body of a Bowery bum, claims to be at work on an epic oral history of the common man. When he’s discovered by New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, played with courtly benevolence by Stanley Tucci (who also directed), he is given a taste of fame – a fleeting, surreal moment when his delusions of grandeur suddenly match the world’s image of him.
This would all be a lovely fairy tale if it weren’t, of course, also true. Based on two of Mitchell’s works, ”Joe Gould’s Secret” is a delicate yet haunting movie, a meditation on friendship, on the roots of bohemianism, on the sad comedy of madness. Tucci, as a filmmaker, has made good on the promise of ”Big Night.” He has once again looked deeply into characters who, however briefly, get to touch a dream.