Friday, January 30, 2009
In "Yonkers Joe" (opening January 30 at the Reading Gaslamp Stadium Cinemas), writer-director Robert Celestin seems to know his way around a small neighborhood cash-stakes game of craps or poker. Watching the title character (played by Chazz Palminteri) work his magic - of inserting new cards in a deck or swapping out regular dice for weighted ones - is mesmerizing. Any time a filmmaker can give you an insider's look at a secretive world, it's a tantalizing point of view. Too bad Celestin wasn't content to stick to that world.
"Yonkers Joe" doesn't want to look at the world of small time gamblers in search of a big scam but rather at how petty con men try to juggle their work and family. In the case of Yonkers Joe his family includes Joe Jr. (Tom Guiry), a mentally handicapped son that Joe left in a group home so he wouldn't have to deal with difficult parental duties. But now Joe, Jr. is too old to stay in the home and too unruly and dad needs to take him home with him. Joe's girlfriend Janice (Christine Lahti) tries to help both with the scams and the child-rearing.
"Yonkers Joe" has similar shortcomings to "The Wrestler." Both films falter when they leave the work environment of their lead characters and attempt to serve up a parent-child relationship. In the case of Yonkers Joe the problems are intensified by the fact that they want to tug on additional heart strings by making Joe, Jr. mentally challenged and then turn him into a Rain Man character who comes in to save the day in a Vegas sting. Guiry's cloying performance milks every scene for pathos and icky sentimentality. Guiry and the film exploit Joe, Jr. for every maudlin cliché they can find.
All this is a shame because Palminteri is a good actor who has Yonkers Joe down pat. He's got the cool, calm surface needed to pull off his gambits, and the kind of easy physical grace needed for his various slights of hand. It's a nicely underplayed performance in terms of depicting the world of small time scams but overheated and uncontrolled when dealing with Joe's family life.
"Yonkers Joe" (R for language including sexual reference) could have been an engaging film about some old school con men and the world they inhabit. The attention to detail in that regard is fascinating. But the overwrought family drama brings the film down to the level of an afterschool special.
Companion viewing: "A Bronx Tale," "A World Without Thieves," "The Sparrow (Cultured Bird)," "The Wrestler"