Tom Guiry as Joe Jr., Chazz Palmintieri as Joe, and Christine Lahti as Janice in Robert Celestino's "Yonkers Joe", which opened today in Denver and San Francisco.  (Photo: Joshua Jose/Magnolia Pictures)


An Old New Jack Hustler's Sleight Of Hand In Yonkers

By Omar P.L. Moore/January 16, 2009

Robert Celestino's quiet, placid film isn't shy about its influences: Martin Scorsese's "Casino" and "The Color Of Money" and the films "Rain Man", "House Of Games" and "Saturday Night Fever" are all staples and homáges to which the director humorously refers and varies in "Yonkers Joe", an underwhelming drama about a card shark hustler who is trying to swindle a group of self-proclaimed sharks in the casino game for one last big payday in a gambling life he just can't escape.  The film opened today at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and Starz Theater in Denver, and recently in New York City.  Chazz Palmintieri (famously duped in "The Usual Suspects") plays Joe, a cold-hearted divorced father who for years has scarcely paid attention to his son Joe Jr. (Tom Guiry), who has Down's Syndrome and/or an occasional outbreak of Tourette's, during which he loudly spews forth vulgarities you wouldn't say to your mother.  Joe Jr. however, doesn't have a mother.  He at least, considers her dead after her abandonment of him at an early age, implicitly because of his condition.  Mr. Celestino, who also wrote the "Yonkers Joe" script, weaves this father-son story into the gambling stakes narrative that ultimately takes over, although neither story is the least bit engaging.

Joe Jr. is in his twenties and is kicked out of a home for the mentally challenged for undisciplined behavior.  He takes to the surrogate mother Joe introduces him to -- Janice (Christine Lahti), a woman Joe says is his wife -- although in a film whose early and late scenes possess an occasionally adept sleight of hand, one isn't quite sure if Janice really is Joe's wife or if she is merely a hustling accomplice.  In the end it probably doesn't matter all that much.  Some of "Yonkers Joe", at least the scenes where the roll of the dice are everything, have a fleeting suspense to them but overall it's a film that falls short in the acting department.  Many of the episodes between Mr. Palmintieri and Ms. Lahti lack spark and chemistry -- although maybe that's the point -- Joe and Janice seem like phantoms to each other, and the dialogue, including such lines as, "I wear this chain around my neck to remind me that I'm just a girl from Lincoln High who hasn't done anything with her life, but I'm no bullshitter, Joe," or words to that effect, feels as empty and forced as the scene in which the line is spoken.  Ms. Lathi ("Running On Empty") and Mr. Palmintieri ("A Bronx Tale") are infinitely better actors than they show here.  Both of them, in fact many, of the actors in the film (except the British-born Linus Roache, who is good here) are New York stage actors whom some will recognize, including Saverio Guerra, who played the drug-addled character Woodstock in Spike Lee's "Summer Of Sam", and here plays a wise-cracking gambling side kick to the more senior horse-betting heavies in the business.  Mike Rispoli ("Summer Of Sam") is also here as a gambler who is suspicious of Joe's seemingly uncanny ability to consistently win rounds of poker.

"Pay attention and watch very carefully because I'm fast," Joe says when teaching his son and others like cheat veteran (Michael Lerner) the art of the hustle, where dice and cards are concerned.  While Mr. Guiry is occasionally winning as Joe Jr., camera tricks, facial ticks and side kicks can't rescue "Yonkers Joe", which in a scene close to the third act, exploits one of the characters (and maybe two) after a horrific incident occurs.  The director tries to do something on the cheap here as a justification, which I won't give away, but it is one of the laziest conceits and cinematic hustles a filmmaker can construct.  Mr. Celestino may well be underestimating the outrage and sophistication of his audience in the particular scene to which I refer, and if you decide to invest in "Yonkers Joe" you will instantly know which scene once you see it. 

With "Yonkers Joe", the hand isn't quicker than the eye, as Mr. Celestino's film telegraphs its punches from a city block away.  In some ways the film is both over and under-directed, and its screenplay not rich or potent enough to frame the main characters as people who have a major stake in anything -- specifically Janice, whom we know very little about.  Roma Maffia (who was memorable playing the defense attorney for Michael Douglas's character in "Disclosure") has a small role as Irene, the executive of the boarding home block for the mentally challenged.  It's good to see her.

"Yonkers Joe" shows that you can't teach an old dog new tricks or engage an audience of filmgoers long enough to feign interest in this Boardwalk drama.  One patron leaving the screening I attended could be heard saying, "that was no Slumdog Millionaire, that's for sure."

And he's absolutely right.

"Yonkers Joe" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language including sexual references.  There's a harrowing scene as well.  The film is playing in New York  and will open in Tucson and Portland next Friday before opening in single theaters in San Diego and Philadelphia on January 30 and in Louisville on February 20.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2009.  All Rights Reserved.

Related: The Popcorn Reel Hot! Minute YouTube Review of "Yonkers Joe"


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