But unlike a lot of actors who direct, he doesn't take a bug-under-the-microscope approach. His style is distanced and observational but warm and engaged. He wants to understand his characters, not just toss them onscreen to give condescending actors a chance to fool around and do bits. Woody Allen loves the past, too, but while Allen is a superior director with a broader canvas, his backward glance is more superficial than Tucci's. In contrast to Allen's contemporary stories?particularly the edgy, yearning, moralistic ones since Hannah and Her Sisters?his nostalgia pieces tend to be a tad cute even when they're well-done, and he wants to make everybody?even Sean Penn's slimebag jazz guitarist in Sweet and Lowdown?lovable. In Tucci's period stories, the atmosphere is dense rather than vibrant, lived-in rather than reconstructed. And there are no overtly likable or unlikable characters?only characters.
He has a couple of doozies in Joe Gould's Secret. The comedy-drama is a liberal adaptation of two stories by New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell (Tucci) about his relationship with the homeless beggar, poet and self-styled people's historian Joe Gould (Ian Holm). It's not a valentine to pre-tv New York, exactly; it's too clear-eyed and haunting for that. But it does recreate both a vanished era of geography and culture and the types of people who inhabited it. Tucci doesn't have a strong compositional sense, and like many actors who direct, he prefers long takes from a medium distance, an approach that lets the actors act (a good thing) at the expense of compositional beauty (a bad thing). But he has an anthropologist's eye for manners and customs?the way men don hats and light cigarettes, the way women check their purses and cross their legs?and he appreciates period characters for what they are, not because they're more or less "advanced" than the contemporary audience. But this is not a cold, academic movie. When Tucci breaks away from his cool, nuanced style and goes for lyrical touches?slow-motion closeups of average citizens walking down the street; flash-frame snapshots taken by Mitchell's wife, the photographer Therese (Hope Davis)?you get a sense of nearly obsessional yearning to be in the past. It's not nostalgia he's feeling?it's too passionate and mature for that. It's more like an historian's astral projection. (Has Tucci read Jack Finney's Time and Again? If not, he should.)
The film is as much about the writer's mindset as it is about New York back in the 40s and 50s. I won't go into detail about Mitchell's life and career. Let's just say that if you don't know what became of him, you'll be surprised and fascinated. If you do know, you'll appreciate how Tucci and screenwriter Howard Rodman link Gould's crippling neuroses with Mitchell's deftly hidden fear of failure and his inability to take his career to another level. Like the heroes of The Shining and Barton Fink?two films that are to writers what The Towering Inferno is to architects?Gould is a worst-case scenario, a man of genuine eccentricity and vision who lost his ability to perform somewhere early in life, or perhaps never got a handle on things to start with. He's known for working on a mammoth oral history of the common people?he scribbles madly in notebooks and carries manuscript pages with him in a small portfolio wherever he goes?but he insists that the work will only be published after he dies. "You've become quite famous," says a book editor played by Steve Martin. "So would anyone who would attempt such a thing," Gould replies.
Perhaps Gould's emblematic predicament accounts for the continuing interest in his life. Mitchell wasn't the first person to be inspired by him; before the New Yorker articles, Gould was the subject of a William Saroyan column and a portrait by painter Alice Neel. (She painted him nude and added two more penises; Gould loved it.) This hairy little man is at once immensely ambitious and deeply afraid of the world. He's also mentally unbalanced, desperately poor and in terrible health. He empties whole bottles of ketchup into soup bowls to thicken them; everywhere he goes, he solicits money for "The Joe Gould Fund," which pays for drinks, stray bits of food and the occasional flophouse room. At a party with much younger New York bohemian-types, he strips nearly naked and recites asinine poetry, and he doesn't seem to care if the crowd pays attention to him because they're impressed by his bravery or smugly amused by his weirdness. For artists, especially artists whose careers never quite caught fire, there's little difference: you do what you have to do to get noticed and feel noteworthy, and you don't ask questions you'd rather not hear answered.
Holm, a great actor who's finally getting the star parts and recognition he deserves, is superb, portraying Gould's fidgety distress and bursts of bitter anger without italicizing them. It's a performance, not an exercise. Unlike too many actors playing emotionally shattered people, he doesn't ask that we admire his technique; he just wants us to understand and empathize with the character. At first, Tucci, an Italian-American New Yorker, seems an odd choice to play an Anglo-Saxon gentleman from North Carolina, but concerns of an actor-director's vanity casting disappear after a few minutes. Tucci gets the regional accent right. He also captures the body language of a confident-but-not-outgoing journalist?the small movements, the subtle reactions, the gift for listening blank-faced to subjects so that they don't become self-aware and clam up. Mitchell subtly pointed out the doppelganger relationship between himself and Gould in articles titled "Professor Seagull" and "Joe Gould's Secret." The parallels ran beneath the surface of Mitchell's prose; a lyrical but relaxed observer, he was never one to come right out and say things when he could suggest them obliquely. Rodman's script foregrounds the parallels without hammering them too hard. He and Tucci suggest, in several lovely, wordless montages, the contrast between the bleak life of Gould, who can risk everything because he has nothing, and Mitchell, who can risk little because he's a middle-class man with a great job, a loving wife and two daughters.
At its most insightful, Joe Gould's Secret examines the central paradox of an artist's life: too much comfort leads to stasis, but too little comfort can lead to madness. Where is the middle ground? You never find it until you're in it; some people never notice it and allow it to slip from beneath their feet.
High Fidelity Directed by Stephen Frears High Fidelity would fit nicely on a double bill with Joe Gould's Secret. In a much looser, shaggier way, it's also about the tension between a life of certainty and a life of randomness?between the domestic life and the creative life. It's also the most enjoyable John Cusack film since Say Anything, mainly because it lets Cusack play a guy who's sort of like Say Anything's hero, Lloyd Dobler. Cameron Crowe's 1989 romantic comedy brought out Cusack's star wattage better than any film since. Together, they made decency and loyalty sexy, and created the first great postfeminist male role model?a sensitive guy who was inarguably a Guy. With good manners, a chattery-slurred speaking style and kickboxing obsession, Lloyd was like the eccentric best pal in a standard romantic comedy, except he got the girl. (It helped that she was smart enough to appreciate him.) The hero of High Fidelity, Chicago record-store owner Rob Gordon, is a Lloyd type, but his romantic life is a mess. His longtime girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle) has moved out because she's grown and he hasn't; he's a smart, personable guy, but he's still a geek who'd rather listen to his records and debate arcana with his employees than muster a thimbleful of ambition. As Rob looks back over his past sexual history to figure out why he keeps screwing things up?directly addressing the camera a la Alfie or Ferris Bueller?he might be Lloyd 11 years later, still driving in the rain at night, visiting places where he and Diane Court used to hang out, yammering observations into a cassette recorder.
The script is by Scott Rosenberg, D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink. The last two are Cusack confidants who worked on Cusack's fitfully endearing Grosse Pointe Blank. They must have realized how much Cusack's fans, who have aged along with him, loved Say Anything, and they probably said, "What the hell?let's indulge them." High Fidelity is packed with nods to Crowe's classic?everything from Rob's bow-to-an-unseen-crowd bit (a Lloyd theft) to the casting of Lili Taylor (an ex-lover in High Fidelity, a pal in Say Anything) and Joan Cusack (Lloyd's sister, Rob's sister). Tim Robbins, who plays Laura's new-age moron yuppie boyfriend, appeared opposite the star in Tapeheads: John Cusack, this is your life!
This stuff should come off as pitifully plagiaristic?like Quentin Tarantino making an anthology film set in a retro hotel full of eccentrics (Four Rooms?it's just like Mystery Train, except it stinks). Instead, High Fidelity is charming, partly because the film is well cast and hilarious, but mainly because the material?Nick Hornby's 1995 novel?is first rate, and beloved by some of the same people who embraced Say Anything. Though Hornby's novel was set in London, the Stateside relocation doesn't matter: record geekdom is the same everywhere. (It's also dying everywhere.) The milieu is perfect for Cusack, who has always seemed too neurotic, contemporary and real for period pieces and cartoony genre flicks. (In Con Air he was like a junior high principal who'd wandered into a prison riot.) He thrives in films like Being John Malkovich and High Fidelity?films that tap his capacity for anxious chatter and worrywart conscience.
There's a plot?Rob loses Laura (er, Petrie?) and eventually has to get her back. But mostly, High Fidelity is about the textures of longing and despair, and how those textures are embedded in the grooves of our favorite records. (The off-the-beaten-path soundtrack mixes grunge, punk, alterna-pop and straightahead rock, including a nice acoustic cover of Frampton's "Baby, I Love Your Way.") Rob has two employees, the tightly wound, roly-poly Barry (wild-eyed Tenacious D veteran Jack Black, who's like Chris Farley with discipline) and skinny, shy Dick (Todd Louiso, the jazz-loving babysitter from Crowe's Jerry Maguire). They're enablers; like Rob, they're hiding in the stacks while life marches on. Yet the film doesn't suggest, as some critics claim, that music geekdom is something Rob has to outgrow. It says he needs to build a bridge between the life inside his head and the life outside?between music and life.
Director Stephen Frears doesn't bother with filmmaking magic, working mainly in two-shots and medium closeups, letting the scenes (and especially Cusack's monologues) unspool like material in a play or a sitcom. This is a mistake. No film with so much wonderful music should be made in such a prosaic, unmusical way; it should be lyrical, expressive and arresting throughout, like the music-driven Rushmore and Trainspotting or the subtle pop montages in Election. But the vibe is right, and that's nine-tenths of the battle. High Fidelity pokes fun at the passion nerds feel for their obsession. But it does so in a way that acknowledges the sincerity and madness of fandom.
To keep from going nuts during his breakup, Rob reorganizes his personal record collection "biographically"?it's like he's performing exploratory surgery on his own memory. Jack subtly bullies a customer into buying an armload of "essential" records, at one point muttering, "I can't believe you don't have this record?Jesus, what's wrong with you?" The women are distinctive and real. Laura is staid compared to the boys, but she's realistic. Women like Laura are the only ones who stick with guys like Rob?who, as it turns out, is not nearly as nice and misunderstood as his narration claims. The ones that got away include Taylor's rebound girl; a dreamy-sexy folksinger (Lisa Bonet, lovely and underused?Rob's a fool for only sleeping with her once); and a cool glamourpuss (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who seemed ideal to Rob in college but wasn't. Rob admits he's no prize, but he's far from a basket case. He's a decent guy?a fallen Lloyd Dobler who declares, "Books, records, films. These things matter. It's the fuckin' truth." Diane Court, whoa.
Framed Quote of the week comes from the commentary track of the Deep Blue Sea DVD (derivative flick, but slick and fun), which features director Renny Harlin and top-billed star Samuel L. Jackson. (People who haven't seen the movie should check out of this item now.) These are Jackson's final comments, spoken over images of a mako shark doing a Shamu and tearing into Jackson's character like a tasty burger: "Well, I have to say, Mr. Jackson is wrapped. I want to thank you all for letting me bend your ear as you watched my part of the movie and, uh, I'd like to thank Renny Harlin for even suggesting that I take a part like this. The stakes just got raised, folks, so if you haven't seen it before, uh, well, anybody can die now! And I think they paid me more than they paid these other people who are in the movie, so your guess is as good as mine who's next. So enjoy! Don't forget about that part I told you about the bruise on the cook's head. Pay attention. It might move."