The Last Rites of Joe May


Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

(2011) Drama (Tribeca) Dennis Farina, Jamie Anne Altman, Gary Cole, Meredith Droeger, Ian Barford, Matt DeCaro, Mike Barcella, Chelcie Ross, Rich Komenich, Brian Boland, Kyle Gibson, Peter Defaria, Billy Dec, Jack Bronis, Nydia Rodriguez, Phil Ridarelli, Dennis Sepanik, Ernest Perry Jr., Craig Bailey, Hans Fleischmann, Maureen Steindler, Andrzej Krukowski, Marla Seidell. Directed by Joe Maggio

There are people who hang out on the fringes of society, people who never get a break in life but live as if they make their own breaks. They are the kings of their own domain, so wrapped up in their own fantasies of greatness that they never truly realize how pitiful they are. Joe May is a lot like that.

Joe May (Farina) has just checked out of a Chicago hospital after a bout of pneumonia. He takes a city bus to a local bar where the bartender exclaims “I thought you was dead!” in a tone that suggests he doesn’t really care if he was or wasn’t as long as his tab gets paid. After having a few drinks, Joe heads back to his apartment.

Only it’s not his apartment anymore. The landlord, falsely believing Joe had passed away, had rented it out to a single mom named Jenny (Altman) and her daughter Angelina (Droeger). Joe’s not particularly fond of kids but after sleeping out in the cold streets of Chicago on one winter night is enough to convince him he needs a place to crash in a hurry. Jenny, needing help making ends meet, gives him the spare room in exchange for help with the rent. Bad idea.

There’s nothing sexual about their relationship but Joe slowly becomes involved with the lives of Jenny and Angelina, striking an unexpected bond with the little girl who is street tough beyond her years. Joe is getting dregs jobs from his old boss (Cole), schlepping a side of lamb around to restaurants trying to get them to buy the meat at a cut rate price. Yeah, I wouldn’t bite either if I owned a restaurant.

To make matters worse, Jenny’s boyfriend (Barford) is a cop who once in a while likes to give his girlfriend a beating. For an old school man like Joe, this simply cannot stand. With all the burdens finding their way to his shoulders, Joe decides to take one last shot at redemption.

The late Dennis Farina was one of the great tough guys in cinema for the last 30 years. This was one of his finest roles – many have thought it was THE finest performance of his career. I’m one of those; Farina was never really a leading man during his distinguished career, but he showed here that he could carry a movie on his own. Joe May is a bit self-deluded and more than a bit cynical, but he wasn’t a bad guy really. He just has the kind of fashion sensibilities that Popeye Doyle would have admired, and maybe he was stuck in the 70s a little bit. But beneath the swagger, there was a man who was world-weary and maybe the nagging doubts that he was in fact a loser were beginning to ring that doorbell to his psyche a lot more insistently.

Filmed mostly on the West Side of Chicago, this is the less glamorous side of the Windy City. There are no skyscrapers, no great museum and little of the awe-inspiring architecture of the Loop and the downtown area, nor does it have the unique charm of the South Side. This is a working class neighborhood with squat buildings low against the freezing cold. This is a place you survive, not live in.

The script is pretty well-written with believable dialogue and the supporting cast, while not well-known for the most part, does a surprisingly strong job. If the action is a little bit predictable (hey, the title gives the denouement away) it is still intriguing and having Farina at his best certainly elevates what might have been a pedestrian tale of an old villain looking to redeem himself before he dies. His performance is certainly worth its weight in gold here and even if the movie isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, you’ll rarely see it better.

WHY RENT THIS: Farina delivers one of the finest performances of his career. Shot with an uncompromising eye.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult situations, foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farina was a Chicago cop for 18 years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: An interview with director Maggio and an outtakes reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Information not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sling Blade
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Jack of the Red Hearts

The Dilemma


The Dilemma

Jennifer Connelly is happy she isn't getting blamed for this mess.

(2011) Comedy (Universal) Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, Channing Tatum, Queen Latifah, Amy Morton, Chelcie Ross, Eduardo N. Martinez, Rance Howard, Clint Howard, Guy van Swearingen, Troy West. Directed by Ron Howard

The last place anyone wants to be in is in the middle of a friend’s marital issues, particularly if their friend is unaware of those issues. These things can not only affect your relationship with your friend, but your other relationships as well.

Ronnie Valentine (Vaughn) and Nick Brannen (James) are partners in a small Chicago engine design firm – Valentine is the sizzle and Brannen is the steak – but more than that, they’ve been best friends since college. Nick is married to Geneva (Ryder), who was friends with both of them back in the old school days. Their business and personal relationship works pretty well; Brannen is the engineer, the brilliant designer that is their chief asset. Valentine is the glib salesman, the man who makes the business run. In the way of old friends, they are comfortable with each other, knowing at all times how the other is going to react.

Ronnie, who has never really found the right girl, may have finally found one in Beth (Connelly). She is patient having put up with a gambling problem that Ronnie apparently has kicked over the past two years. However, he has balked at actually committing up to now. Nick and Geneva urge Ronnie to pop the question – a girl like Beth, gorgeous, sexy and smart (not to mention a top chef) – won’t wait around forever.

Ronnie and Nick are down to the bone on their business; they need a big deal or they’ll both go under, having mortgaged everything to keep the company afloat. However, help looks like it’s on the horizon – a meeting with a Chrysler VP (Ross) about a fuel-efficient motor with the sound and power of a V8 muscle car motor gets a tentative go-ahead…provided they can make it work. They are left to the tender mercies of a maverick executive (Latifah) who tries very hard to be one of the boys.

There’s plenty of pressure on Nick as the engineer and he has the ulcers to show for it. However, his little talk with Ronnie has prompted him to propose to Beth – and he has gone to the local arboretum to find the perfect spot to propose. While there, Ronnie spies Geneva with a strapping, tattooed young man – Zip (Tatum). They seem awfully cozy…and then when they begin passionately kissing, Ronnie is so startled he falls into a patch of highly toxic plants, causing his face to break out in itchy hives and for him to have “challenging” urination.

Ronnie wrestles with how to tell his friend about what he saw, but after practicing on his sister (Morton) who then gets the impression he was talking about her husband (Van Swearingen) he then confronts Geneva with what he knows. However, not only does she refuse to tell her husband about what’s going on, she threatens to spill the beans on a secret the two of them have been keeping since before she met Nick. Ronnie then resolves to inform Nick one way or another without telling him directly – and merriment (theoretically) ensues.

This is a movie with a terrific pedigree – an Oscar-winning director, two of the funniest comic actors in the business and two of the most gorgeous women in Hollywood. It has all the ingredients for a very successful comedy. It just isn’t very funny.

The filmmakers rely mostly on gags that put poor Vince Vaughn through the wringer, from having him getting beaten up (numerous times) to falling into poisonous plants to having him get bitched out by Geneva. I’m all for pratfalls and physical comedy, but if that’s all you got, well even the Keystone Kops had subtlety sometimes.

I’ve always liked James and Vaughn and they have enough genuine charisma and chemistry to carry things through to a certain extent – it’s just that they don’t have anything funny to do. That can be deadly if you’re making a comedy.

Now it can be argued that Howard never intended to make a comedy and an argument can be made that this is actually a relationship drama. If that’s the case, why establish expectations for a comedy by casting Vaughn and James…and then market it as a romantic comedy? You simply set up a movie for failure that way.

That aside, there are some interesting insights on relationship dynamics, particularly when it comes to honesty within a relationship. It isn’t anything particularly earth-shattering or even mildly so, but at least it tries to shed some light on the subject and I give the movie points for that.

Still, much of the movie falls flat and the attempts of humor don’t work. I just felt that the movie didn’t connect with me and I more or less passed time rather than enjoying it. That’s not really a recommendation for a movie at all.

REASONS TO GO: Connelly and Ryder are both very pleasing to the eye. Some insight into moral dilemmas.

REASONS TO STAY: The really funny parts are few and far between and mostly seen on the trailer. Vaughn’s character is so wishy-washy you end up wishing he’d just blurt it out and get it over with.

FAMILY VALUES: The entire plot has to do with sex and infidelity, although it’s never addressed in an overt manner.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While practicing for the “Shoot the Puck” scene at the United Center, Kevin James actually shot the puck into the net. While he didn’t win a trip to the NHL All-Star game, the extras all cheered “Chelsea Dagger” in his honor.  

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams big screen.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Legion