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Tucci's movie full of secrets

PARK CITY, Utah I've seen 10 movies so far at this year's Sundance Film Festival, some of them, I fear, destined to play nowhere else. I'll comment on some of them in later articles, but here's one for today: Stanley Tucci's "Joe Gould's Secret," about the strange and strained long-term friendship between New Yorker staff writer Joseph Mitchell (Tucci) and a brilliant, charming bum named Joe Gould (Ian Holm).

Gould was New York's favorite bohemian in the 1920s and 1930s. He supported himself by demanding contributions to the "Joe Gould fund," and claimed to be writing an epic "oral history of New York" - wandering the streets and writing down everything of interest that he heard. Mitchell writes an article about Gould, and then another. Gould and he develop a love-hate relationship, in which it is the often homeless bum who takes the moral high ground.

The film has more secrets than the one referred to in the title. You will have to see it to understand what I mean, but one of the secrets is that it is really about Joseph Mitchell, and Joe Gould operates in a way as a mirror turned to his soul.

"American Psycho" was the most anticipated film at this year's festival, and now it gains another distinction, as the most loathed. The film stars Christian Bale in what is, actually, an accomplished performance as cold-hearted yuppie psychopath Patrick Bateman, the subject of Bret Easton Ellis' praised and reviled best-seller. The more you hate Bateman, and you do, the more you have to hand it to Bale for his courage in creating this monster. Credit goes also to director Mary Harron ("I Shot Andy Warhol") for going all the way with her material, for uncompromising fidelity to Ellis' portrait of a man who admits nobody is at home in his soul - a man whose values are expressed in brand names and status symbols, and who spends his secret hours horribly killing and mutilating his victims.

Imagine a GQ cover boy crossed with Jeffrey Dahmer. Give him a big job on Wall Street. That's Patrick Bateman. The Sundance audience hated the film. The hate seemed to reach right across the spectrum, from Salt Lake City Mormons who found it evil ("a crime against humanity," one woman told me) to hip Sundance indie film types who, uncomfortable with moral outrage, spoke sadly in hushed voices about its chances at the box office.

"American Psycho" is cold. Very cold. From its antiseptic interiors to the stony face of its hero and the frosted screams of his victim's heads in his refrigerator, it's as icy a film as I've seen. There is absolutely no attempt to make Batemen into anything other than the most hateful character within the power of the filmmakers to create.

No doubt there is a case to be made for the film. It is well made - the better to disgust us with, to be sure. It is an attack no doubt on the yuppie values of the Me Decade. It shows materialism and selfishness taken to their ultimate extremes. As an object lesson, it can even be seen as ultimately serving a moral purpose. It is not a bad film. But it is an agonizing experience.

Come with me to the good-hearted "Compensation," as far removed from "American Psycho" as it is possible to go and still remain within the same civilization. This is a film that stars the same two actors in two matched romances. Both take place in Chicago: one circa 1910, the other in the present day. In both stories, the woman is deaf and the man can hear and tries to learn sign language. The backdrop is the changing nature of African-American lives during the century.

The director is Zeinabu irene Davis (she likes the small "i" on her middle name), formerly a professor at Northwestern, now living in San Diego. Her husband, Marc A. Chery, a onetime librarian for the Chicago Public Library, is the screenwriter and producer. The stars are Michelle A. Banks, who is deaf, and John Earl Jelks. Davis' inspiration is silent film, and particularly the many films produced by and for blacks at a time when movie theaters were segregated. The earlier story is told as a silent film, and the modern story uses similar techniques; in it, we can hear the dialogue, but it is all subtitled, anyway, for deaf audience members.

Both stories are dreamy, atmospheric reveries, rich in humor and social observation. The early story deals with the blow to the heroine's life when the only Chicago school for the deaf is segregated in 1910. Her new boyfriend is illiterate, so she teaches him reading, writing and American Sign Language all at once. In the modern story, the fiance takes ASL classes, but in both stories there is opposition to the romance from those who tell the heroine that a hearing man will never truly be able to understand her needs.

This is a small, quiet, enchanting film about characters who endure and prevail and trust themselves. The style is perfectly suited to the material. It makes you feel good. Strap the American Psycho to a chair and make him watch "Compensation," and his head would explode.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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