Where the Money Is should be a loser. How would you handicap the odds of success for an unheralded movie with so many foreboding elements: a forgettable title, a worn-out genre, an original story by the writer-director of the unspeakable Amos and Andrew, a director who has only made two theatrical features in the last 16 years, a geriatric male lead, an actress wasted by Hollywood after her breakthrough in indie pictures, and a youngish male actor doomed to accept roles rejected by his more sought-after peers? To invoke the title of director Marek Kanievska’s misbegotten second movie: less than zero.

With all of these liabilities—and even because of some of them—Where the Money Is turns out to be one of the few recent Hollywood movies that I feel comfortable recommending without reservation. The cast and crew of this frisky heist comedy have outdone themselves, putting a fresh spin on a project that, in theory, sounds like a recycled recycle. From a commercial point of view, I’m afraid it will have little appeal to the age demographic that buys movie tickets. But as entertainment, it’s a winner that deserves to be seen quickly before it melts into the mists of cable and video rental.

Paul Newman plays Henry, an incorrigible thief who feigns a stroke to get himself transferred from prison to a nursing home. There he’s assigned to the care of Carol (Linda Fiorentino), a restless former prom queen bored with her life and her waning marriage to onetime prom king Wayne (Dermot Mulroney). Carol suspects that Harry is faking paralysis and devises a number of ingenious tests to prove that he’s bluffing. When she finally outsmarts him—is there anyone so dense as to believe that Newman would spend an entire movie comatose in a wheelchair?—she blackmails him into agreeing to mastermind a robbery involving her and Wayne.

For most of his career, Newman has been circumscribed by the heartthrob looks and intelligence that, despite his evident talent, made him hard to accept as a pool hustler, a cowboy, or a cop. Now in his mid-70s, an age when most performers are heading for the Motion Picture Home, he has refined his art to the point that he can communicate emotions with astonishing economy. His gruff/funny/tender/stoic Harry should be seen by anyone with even a casual interest in screen acting.

Fiorentino, who won the 1994 New York Film Critics Award for her incendiary femme fatale in The Last Seduction, was derailed the following year when Hollywood, in the person of William Friedkin, chose her to star in the pitiful Jade. Since then, she’s kept afloat in a series of uninteresting roles, waiting to snag another showcase worthy of her perverse, uninhibited persona. She’s found it in Carol, who views Harry as the catalyst for escaping the prison that her life has become. Larcenous yet not without certain scruples, she’s a character of surprising complexity, a worthy foil for Newman’s Harry. Even Mulroney, who contributed scarcely more than negative space to My Best Friend’s Wedding, performs effectively, his slightly blurry handsomeness signaling something unseemly in Wayne’s makeup.

E. Max Frye’s original plot, which he adapted for the screen with two collaborators, abounds with zesty dialogue and satisfying twists that evolve logically from his situations and characters. Kanievska’s direction keeps the tricky plot moving without dull patches and is remarkable for its refusal to travesty the secondary characters—nursing home residents and staff, security guards and police. This humane tone distinguishes Where the Money Is from the general run of coarse, manipulative caper pictures. Realistic in style and generous in spirit, it’s one of the rare new Hollywood productions that you emerge from without feeling slightly soiled.

To enjoy Where the Money Is, all you need to do is buy a ticket and take a seat. Stanley Tucci’s Joe Gould’s Secret requires some patience and cooperation. But as the film progresses, it takes on substance, weaving together themes that are painstakingly established in its sluggish opening reels. By the fadeout, Tucci had won me over, and flashes of his movie returned to me days after I saw it.

Screenwriter-novelist Howard A. Rodman adapted Joe Gould’s Secret from two journalistic pieces by North Carolina-bred Joseph Mitchell who, at 21, moved to Manhattan, where he worked for nearly a decade as a newspaper reporter. In 1938, he joined the New Yorker, and he remained with the magazine until his death in 1996. Mitchell’s specialty was locating, observing, and writing sympathetic, witty, eloquent portraits of the city’s least known, most colorful denizens, including swindlers, street preachers, Mohawk construction workers, gypsies, and a bearded lady.

Up in the Old Hotel, a thick 1992 anthology of Mitchell’s writing, belongs on the bookshelf of every avid reader. The volume includes the two articles about Joe Gould on which Tucci’s film is based—a brief 1942 essay and a book-length two-part profile published in 1964, seven years after Gould’s death. Born in 1889 in Norwood, Mass., Gould came from a family of doctors and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1911. A diminutive rebel, he soon migrated to Greenwich Village, where he became an intellectual panhandler, sleeping in flophouses and haunting bars to collect contributions for the Joe Gould Fund. Although he dabbled in an assortment of pursuits, including American Indian “eugenics” and the language of seagulls, he devoted the bulk of his life to a single obsessive writing project: The Oral History of Our Time, a combination of transcribed overheard conversations and autobiographical ruminations recorded in innumerable school composition books. Brief excerpts from this never-completed work appeared in the Dial, Exile, and other literary magazines, attracting the acclaim and occasional financial support of e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, William Saroyan, and other artistic figures.

Joe Gould’s Secret charts the ebbs and flows of the relationship between the taciturn Mitchell and the boozy, unkempt nonconformist: They meet in a diner where Gould cadges free meals. Mitchell gradually falls under the spell of this wacked-out bohemian who claims to subsist on “air, self-esteem, cigarette butts, cowboy coffee, fried-egg sandwiches, and ketchup.” “Professor Seagull,” Mitchell’s first article about Gould, elevates his subject to the status of minor celebrity, but also creates something of a personal albatross. For the remainder of his life, Gould dogs his Boswell, serving as both a burden and artistic conscience.

Tucci’s movie begins as a series of unstressed vignettes, sketching in the character of the soft-spoken journalist, living in a small apartment with his photographer wife and their two young daughters. His initial encounters with Gould are similarly measured, gradually revealing snippets of information about the eccentric’s enigmatic life. Subtly, the narrative gains resonance as we begin to recognize the affinities between the two men, both of whom have fled from their uninspiring birthplaces to discover themselves and their artistic missions in the kaleidoscopic swirl of Manhattan life.

Gould is an actor’s dream assignment, a cornucopia of mercurial moods: drunkenness, pathos, lechery, defiance, tenderness, and borderline lunacy. Ian Holm, who played the rival restaurateur in Tucci’s charming directorial debut, Big Night, has a field day, burrowing into the flamboyant character without ever going over the top. Occasionally, his efforts to conceal his English accent appear somewhat burdensome, and, bewilderingly, the screenplay denies him the most hilarious scene in Mitchell’s reportage: Gould’s squawking translation of “Hiawatha” into Seagullese.

Tucci’s sympathetic Mitchell is a bit too understated. Cast as a self-effacing observer, the actor-director underplays to the point of near weightlessness in his early scenes, before assuming more presence as Gould challenges and blights his existence. However, Tucci’s Southern accent, a stumbling block for most performers, couldn’t be better: a soft regional wash instead of the near-imbecilic drawl one usually encounters from actors. Hope Davis—who, even with dark hair, looks like Hillary Clinton’s twin sister—is underused in the skimpy role of Mitchell’s wife. Susan Sarandon, as artist Alice Neel (who once painted a portrait of Gould with three phalluses), and Patricia Clarkson, as the supportive gallery owner Vivian Marquie, provide moments of welcome warmth as members of Gould’s survival system. But casting Steve Martin in a cameo as publisher Charlie Duell was a miscalculation; he’s wooden and intrusive.

Joe Gould’s Secret’s greatest triumph lies in its evocation of New York in the ’40s and early ’50s. Not just the look of Manhattan street scenes, interiors, cars, costumes—which is a remarkable feat for a modestly budgeted independent film—but something even rarer: the city’s creative spirit. Authentic nonconformists populate Tucci’s bohemia, women and men who became artists because they couldn’t repress passionately held ideas and feelings. (For their contemporary downtown counterparts, iconoclasm is seldom little more than a cosmetic career choice or “lifestyle option.”) Gould considered himself the last real bohemian and, despite his self-aggrandizement, he probably was right. By the time Gould died, Greenwich Village was in transition from a close-knit artistic and intellectual urban colony that looked out for its own misfits to today’s mishmash of shops and condos overrun at nightfall by stoned kids and gaping tourists. Beyond its tender concern for its protagonists, Joe Gould’s Secret is an elegy for a lost and surely richer world. CP