2000 Sundance Film Festival Update #5: "The Name Game"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 27, 2000

Sundance often likes inviting big names - or at least big names in the independent arena - to premiere films at the festival. It makes for good press and generates a little extra excitement. Often, however, these big names lead to big disappointments. A case in point is Stanley Tucci's Joe Gould's Secret, which was the Park City opening night feature. To hear it described, Joe Gould's Secret sounds interesting, and it has an impressive cast that includes Ian Holm, Tucci, Hope Davis, and Steve Martin. But Tucci's sluggish directorial style not only distances the audience from the story, but threatens to put everyone in the theater to sleep.

Clearly, Tucci is not growing as a director - which is unfortunate, because his debut feature, Big Night (co-directed with Campbell Scott), indicated that he was a talent behind the camera to watch. His follow-up, The Impostors, was an enjoyable slapstick exercise, but represented a step down. Now, with Joe Gould's Secret, Tucci has stumbled even farther in the wrong direction on the creative ladder. This meandering, overlong movie is rescued from the cinematic rubbish heap solely by Ian Holm's performance, a stylish production design, and a few nice, comic touches.

Joe Gould's Secret is based on a true story (as the end credit disclaimer goes to great pains to point out). Joe Mitchell (played here by Stanley Tucci), a writer for The New Yorker magazine, wrote two articles separated by thirty years about Joe Gould. The first, "Professor Seagull", was published during the 1940s and introduced the odd character of Joe Gould (Ian Holm) to the reading public. The second, Mitchell's last contribution to The New Yorker, was entitled "Joe Gould's Secret", and revealed a few things that had lain buried with Gould for decades. Tucci and screenwriter Howard A. Rodman have used these articles as the basis for this motion picture.

Joe Gould is a Greenwich Village eccentric - a homeless man of great wit and wisdom whose haggard appearance either amuses or repulses most of those he meets. "Please don't think me stupid just because I'm unclean," he cautions, and with good reason - he is the author of an exceedingly ambitious work called The Oral History of the World. It's a 1,300,000 word tome that has resulted from Gould's lifelong experiences of listening to people and writing down what they say - "a repository of jabber." One day, Joe Mitchell meets Joe Gould in a diner, and becomes fascinated by the grubby older man. Gould elects to show part of his Oral History to Mitchell, and Mitchell agrees to write an article about Gould. As the two get to know each other, they develop a level of mutual respect and affection, but, once the article is finished, Mitchell wants to move on to other projects, but Gould, who is lonely, clings to his friend like a leech.

The problem with the film isn't as much the story as it is the manner in which Tucci has chosen to bring it to the screen. His vision of 1940s New York is impeccable - he effectively evokes the time period - but the characters become as remote as the setting. Joe Gould's Secret drags. The tone is somnambulant, Tucci's selection of shots and camera angles are flat and uninteresting, and one finds it difficult to care about or sympathize with anyone in the film. One of the bright spots is Ian Holm, who digs his teeth into one of those parts that gives actors the opportunity to act with gusto, but Holm by himself isn't enough to save the film. And, although Holm's character is the best fleshed-out, it's Mitchell, not Gould, who is intended to be our gateway into the film, and there's nothing remotely interesting here about Tucci or the man he plays.

So what do we end up with? An occasionally amusing but largely dreary story about a cantankerous oddball whose dubious claim to fame is a work that no one has read in its entirety. The film isn't terrible, but it is a bit of a chore to sit through. For Tucci, the lukewarm reception to Joe Gould's Secret should serve as a warning - if he doesn't reverse his directorial trend, his next movie may be unwatchable.

Of course, it's not just veteran directors who are capable of disappointing. Sometimes that same claim can be made of actors. Consider Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her, which is by a first-time writer/director but stars a dream cast of A-list actresses. Despite all the star wattage, however, this is a lightweight film that offers little that is new or interesting. OFCS member and Salt Lake City-based critic Scott Renshaw described the film as "Magnolia light", but I prefer to call it "Magnolia trite."

Things You Can Tell is structured as a series of five short stories about women looking for love. Although a few characters briefly cross over to make an appearance in a story other than their own, each of the tales can stand independently. The linking material is thematic - all of the women focused on by Rodrigo Garcia's screenplay have similar characterstics: they're independent, career-minded, lonely, and unlucky in relationships. There's Dr. Elaine Keener (Glenn Close), a successful physician who cares for her aging mother while waiting for a call from a man. Rebecca Weyman (Holly Hunter) is a successful bank manager who discovers that she's pregnant with the child of her latest married lover. Rose (Kathy Baker), a single mother, finds a potential partner in the most unlikely of men: a dwarf named Adam (Danny Woodburne), who has just moved in across the street. Christine (Calista Flockhart) is trying to cope with the approaching death of her lover, Lilly (Valeria Golino). Finally, Kathy Farber (Amy Brenneman) is trying to balance her career as a police detective, her dehydrated love life, and her responsibility for caring for her cynical, blind sister, Carol (Cameron Diaz).

For the most part, Things You Can Tell can be described either as a "tease" or a "good start." Each of the characters is effectively introduced; unfortunately, just as we're getting to know them and starting to care about them, it's time to move onto the next short story. Unlike in Magnolia, which constantly returns to its various characters to further their storylines, Things You Can Tell never looks back once it has changed lead characters. The movie's point is to emphasize the loneliness of professional women in today's world, where intimacy is becoming increasingly difficult to find. That's not exactly a new theme, and Things You Can Tell doesn't really offer a fresh angle of approach.

The first two stories, despite telling familiar stories with similarly afflicted characters, are the movie's best. This is due in large part to effective performances from Close and Hunter. To give us more information about the leads than might otherwise be presented in twenty-odd minutes, Garcia employs a shortcut: he has strangers size up the main characters and offer pointed opinions. In the first segment, it's a palm reader. In the second, it's a homeless woman. These episodes raise the controversial issues of euthanasia (indirectly) and abortion (directly).

The third story is the film's most potentially disturbing. There are intimations that a mother's affection for her son goes far beyond what one might typically consider proper. This sets up a tone of ambiguity when it comes to Rose's potential relationship with Adam - does she see him as a surrogate for her son with whom she can become sexually involved? What on the surface seems like a pleasant comic story has some dark undertones.

The movie unravels in the fourth segment, a been-there, done-that exploration of how the impending death of one person impacts her relationship with her partner. The final episode feels crowded and busy, with too many characters and subplots vying for screen time. Then there's an epilogue tacked on at the end that is intended to bring about a sense of closure, but instead manages to seem contrived and cloying. One of the main reasons I came away from this film with a gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction is that, instead of getting stronger during the second half, Things You Can Tell falls apart. The simple act of re-arranging the segments might have resulted in a better motion picture. This kind of film needs to end on a strong note, not a whimper.

Another movie with a great cast that ultimately fails to live up to expectations is Trixie. Like Things You Can Tell, Trixie is more of a disappointment than a bad movie. Another connection is that both films start out strongly, then wear out their welcomes before the end credits arrive. Trixie is the latest effort from director Alan Rudolph, who manages a partial comeback from the disastrous Breakfast of Champions. His cast includes the luminous Emily Watson, Dermot Mulroney, Nathan Lane, and the always-reliable Nick Nolte.

Trixie is a film noir parody, and, for the first 45 minutes to one hour of its running time, it is a funny (sometimes hilarious) motion picture. Unfortunately, it's around halftime when the humor starts petering out and the movie begins to concentrate on a feeble and unconvincing crime plot. The danger with satires of this sort is that filmmakers, in trying to make their production a viable entry into the genre as well as a spoof of it, lose sight of the initial goal. This is what happens with Trixie, and the reason why the limp second half fails to fulfill the promise of the first portion.

Emily Watson plays the title character with her usual panache. Gum chewing Trixie Zurbo is an idiot savant with the "savant" removed. She's a rent-a-cop with aspirations of becoming a detective and solving crimes. She's also about as obtuse as they come and has an amazing affinity for malapropisms. During the course of the movie, she messes up more sayings than Yogi Berra managed in a lifetime. A few examples: "You're out of your rocker", "Either fish or get off the pot", "I'll get him by hook or by ladder", "Grab the bull by the tail and look him in the eye", "Do I have an ace up my hole?" She also makes astounding observations like "My sister's expecting, but I don't know yet whether I'll be an aunt or an uncle."

Trixie may be the dimmest bulb in the package, but that doesn't mean her fellows are much smarter. These include Nathan Lane as a casino lounge performer, Nick Nolte as a corrupt state senator, Dermot Mulroney as Trixie's would-be beau, and Wil Patton as a sneering bad guy. Trixie is working security duty at a casino when she unwittingly becomes involved in a crime. After being pegged by the police as a murder suspect, she works to clear her name and bring the real criminals to justice.

In a strange sort of way, this is Dumb and Dumber for the art-house crowd. Much of the humor has the same kind of appeal (without the overt grossness or flatulence). And, even though the film's second half is considerably weaker than what precedes it, there are still a few isolated moments worth watching (such as a shoot-out between parties who can't fire a gun straight and Nolte's under-the-table encounter with a pretty girl's hand). Overall, however, Trixie is too uneven to receive more than a marginal recommendation.

© 2000 James Berardinelli

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