Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Yonkers Joe: Grade B

Yonkers Joe (2008)
Chaz Palminteri, Christine Lahti, Tom Guiry; Writer-Director Robert Celestino.

I am a longtime fan of Chaz Palminteri so I may be overrating this movie, but I enjoyed it despite its often sagging pace. Joe is an old gambler and hustler, an expert in cheating at cards and at dice. He bets the ponies compulsively, apparently with mixed results, and practices palming dice to relax. His comfortable life in Yonkers with his girlfriend (Lahti) is disturbed when a facility caring for his retarded son (Guiry) expels the teenager for aggressiveness. The old con man is panicked, at a loss about what to do with the child, but his girlfriend responds better to the challenge. The retarded character is extremely annoying and was a significant negative for me. It was some kind of implausible synthesis of Down Syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, nonspecific cognitive deficit, and most annoying, a sensorimotor problem that had the young man hold his jaw off to one side and speak as if he had CP. The picture is so wrong I winced every time I saw him on screen. Perhaps those less familiar with developmental disorders could accept the stereotype.

Joe must come up with a pile of money to pay for a group home to get the kid out of his house and off his back, so he decides to run a dice scam in Los Vegas, even though his buddies tell him it is impossible to beat Vegas security. But he has a plan that makes a great plot, with lots of interesting moves and good internal tension. Meanwhile, his girlfriend is increasingly ticked off at him for not stepping up to his fatherly duties with his son.The two stories come together when Joe does finally establish an emotional connection with his son just as the dice scam reaches its conclusion.

It is a sensitively written movie, part grifter-thriller, and part adult relationship drama. The relationship theme was too slow, too predictable, and not drawn sharply enough, so it always was a maddening diversion from the gambling plot, which was far more interesting. The relationship side of the story didn’t have anything to say. Many dramatic possibilities were overlooked.

Palminteri acts better than I have ever seen him, the venerable gangster stereotype even doing “sensitive” relationship scenes convincingly. Supporting characters are very strong. Directing is strong, especially in small details and gestures. Sets are perfect. It is hard to say why this independent project does not come alive on both levels, but it’s got enough going for it to be worth a look.

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