Yonkers Joe

Yonkers Joe

A new kind of Rat Pack.

(Magnolia) Chazz Palminteri, Christine Lahti, Tom Guiry, Michael Lerner, Linus Roache, Michael Rispoli, Roma Maffia, Frank John Hughes. Directed by Robert Celestino

Cheating at games of chance is almost as old as games of chance are themselves. If there’s a way to beat the system, someone will look for it and quite likely find it.

In a digital age of computer software and round-the-clock camera surveillance in casinos, Yonkers Joe (Palminteri) is a bit of a dinosaur. He hustles small-time card games and dice games, hiding cards in his clothes and switching out regular dice for loaded ones. His fast hands have made him a living over the years, but the truth is that he’s a small-time hustler who dreams of the big score but that score is so out of his reach that it might as well be at the top of Mt. Everest.

He and his pals Stanley (Lerner) and Teddy (Roache) hang out together, talking about what small level cons they can pull and reminiscing about the good old days. Joe’s girl Janice (Lahti) is also around, part of the life but moving away from it. She has come to realize that she’ll never be more than a small time cheat, and wants more out of her life, pressed-on nails and gaudy costume jewelry aside.

Into the mix comes Joe’s son Joe Jr. (Guiry), who has Down’s Syndrome and has been institutionalized most of his life. Now word comes that his unruly behavior and the fact he is approaching his 21st birthday means that he will have to leave the facility he’s in before he can be transferred to the adult facility that he’s scheduled to move into. His options are extremely limited, and the one that is least palatable to either him or his father but the only one that is realistically open to them is that Joe Jr. must move in with his dad, who views his progeny as some kind of divine retribution for all the petty acts of criminal behavior he’s engaged in over his lifetime.

When Joe figures out a way to fool the “eye in the sky” surveillance cameras at a Vegas casino to slip loaded dice into a game, he knows he has to try, but with his son’s difficult behavior causing friction between him and Janice, can he pull off the score he was meant to make?

I really wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did, but did not mainly because it’s a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand you have the con movie, which is a somewhat more realistic version of con movies like The Sting and works very nicely. Palminteri is brilliant in a role that is right in his comfort zone; a tough guy whose facade has some hard-to-ignore cracks in it. These are the kind of roles that make you appreciate how good an actor he is.

Unfortunately, you also have the whole subplot of the relationship between him and his son. I’m not trying to knock Guiry, who does as well as can be expected with a role that is basically underwritten, but the scenes involving his character bring the movie to a screeching halt. The two stories seem at odds with each other. While director Celestino has said (at the Q&A session at the Tribeca Film Festival where this premiered) that the movie is about the character taking responsibility and letting people into his life, the strange thing is that those are the elements that were the least successful.

The scenes where Joe and his gang are working their magic are the best in the movie, and the most fascinating. These “mechanics” as Joe refers to himself as, are a dying breed and being given a glimpse into their world is like seeing something that may soon be gone forever, and you feel a sense of gratitude that at least we got a chance to witness a dying art form.

Kudos have to go to Lahti, an actress who mostly works in television but is amazing no matter what medium she’s in. She plays Janice as worldweary, a woman who has been betrayed by her own dreams but still hopes for better things. A different actress might have highlighted the brassier elements of the character, but Lahti, while embracing that side of Janice, doesn’t dwell on it, making the character seem far more accessible.

Celestino did extensive research into mechanics and casino security, making the movie feel much more authentic. Unfortunately, the Joe Jr. sequences seem forced and manipulative, adding a kind of second rate Rain Man into the mix. I think it would have been a much better movie if they had jettisoned that aspect of the movie and instead focused in on the adult characters; that’s a movie I would have been shouting from the rooftops for all to go see. As it is, this is a flawed but ultimately watchable movie that those who like movies about cons and cheats are going to want to check out.

WHY RENT THIS: Palminteri and Lahti are two of America’s most underrated actors, and they fill their roles with style. The con job material is fascinating.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The relationship between Joe and his son just reeks of forced melodrama; the movie would have been much better without it.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is, as you might expect, pretty colorful. There are also some sexual references as well as an attempted rape which might be unsettling to some.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Palminteri actually learned the moves performed in the film and became adept at it; all of the dice and card moves shown in the film were performed by Palminteri and not a stunt double.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the technical advisor John “Fast Jack” Farrell, who dubs himself the “Last of the Mohicans,” and another where Celestino demonstrates the dice and card moves used in the film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Salt

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