Friday, January 30, 2009

"Yonkers Joe"

"Yonkers Joe" is a coming of age story set in the world of professional gambling. It is an ode to the old time gambling establishment and distant fathers. One producer was drawn to the project because he related to the emotionally distant gambler father and the authentic details of the gambling world that were drawn from director/writer Robert Celestino's own life experiences. It is entertaining to watch the ins and outs of dice tricks and gambling scams.

Slight of hand, dice artist Joe (Chazz Palminteri) is given the opportunity to conduct a big casino heist. The plan is complicated when he must care for his mentally challenged son who has been thrown out of his special needs facility for violent and inappropriate behavior - just before he is to be promoted to an adult group home. This further motivates Joe to do the heist (which could land him in jail) to pay for a classy care center for his son.

This film is about the struggle to become a man when you have a distant (and often absent) father. This transition is made more difficult when your male role model is a petty criminal. Joe thinks nothing of introducing his son to the family business. To Joe it is a legitimate way to make a living. He explains, "There are no free rides." Needless to say, he isn't a positive father figure. He doesn't show love for his son or his scam artist girlfriend Janice. (Though he is protective of both.) In fact, he is embarrassed of the boy. When one of Joe's victims catches on to the dice scam, Joe Jr. tackles him. Joe Sr. loses his temper and must be pulled off of his son by his co-swindlers.

His partners in crime (made up of an impressive array of character actors) actually get a kick out of Joe Jr. and nudge Joe to treat his son better. There is a certain honor among criminals when it comes to family matters.

Chazz Palminteri (A Bronx Tale, Bullets Over Broadway, The Usual Suspects), delivers an edgy performance. He is in turn distant, impatient, frustrated and quick tempered. But there are moments when he is amused by Joe Jr's inappropriate stories. He eventually gains a grudging respect and affection for his son. Joe Jr. learns an important lesson from his father, "Men make mistakes" but a man is responsible for those mistakes.

Tom Guiry (as Joe Jr.) catches the mannerisms and nuances of a high functioning down syndrome man and gives a touchingly real performance.

Father and son have some pretty ugly traits. It is the job of Joe's girlfriend Janice, played by a luminescent Christine Lahti (Running on Empty, Chicago Hope), to help us see their good side. If she likes them, they can't be all that bad, right? Lahti is a bit too luminescent - almost angel like. I would have liked to have seen the one female character be a little more multi-dimensional with some weaknesses of her own.

"Yonkers Joe" almost could have been a family film aside for some hard language and disturbing situations. But if you are into heist films or coming of age stories, please, attend "Yonkers Joe" as soon as possible. It is only playing for one more week at the Loft in Tucson.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

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