Making a film about a scam artist is probably a lot like being one -- no matter how solid an idea seems, it's really all about the execution. The life of a cheat lends itself to high drama and conflict, but it can also be riddled with clichés. Throw in a mentally disabled son and a shot at the big score, and you've got a combination of storylines so obvious, they seem destined to fail. But Yonkers Joe doesn't fail. It's a spunky little indie that succeeds past its cheap conventions.
Both the credit and the blame go to writer-director Robert Celestino. His cornball plot shouldn't work, but his direction, especially with actors, does. Chazz Palminteri (Celestino's executive producer) is the title guy, a gambling stiff with an amazing ability to cheat crap games. He'll belly up to a table, pull some David Blaine-like moves to drop tainted dice into a game, and make a fortune. Unfortunately, Atlantic City security has his number, and private games are too small for his ambitions.
Enter Joe's 19-year-old mentally challenged son, Joe Jr. (Tom Guiry), staying with Dad after being booted from assisted living for being crude and violent. If Joe Sr.. can't straighten Junior out -- or make enough cash to pay for an alternative -- his gambling lifestyle will be seriously impeded. But if Joe can pull off one giant payday in Vegas...
You get the picture. Despite all the seen-it-before ideas, Yonkers Joe feels just a little different. Palminteri, an actor who telegraphs the "tough guy" image too often, softens here and lets his age (56) work for him, conveying a good sense of last-chance desperation and an inability to change. He's thinner and more wrinkled than in, say, The Usual Suspects, looking like a guy who's suffered too many bad bets, too many lonely nights.
He's countered well by Guiry, who understands that his rougher, more ridiculous lines ("Suck on a bowl of cocks!") are meant to deliver comic relief without cheating Joe Jr.'s intensity. Unfortunately, Guiry's performance is poorly timed; any able-minded actor playing a retarded character will now be judged by the infamous "Never go full retard" recommendation offered in Tropic Thunder. That said, I can't comment on whether someone of Joe Jr.'s intellect would react with the actions and comments we see here.
But suspending disbelief is not a problem with Yonkers Joe. You'll need it to get caught up in the assorted sleight-of-hand scams from swapping cards to palming dice. Celestino pulls back the curtain for us and never goes too far in explaining a scenario, letting Palminteri and buddy Michael Lerner chit-chat with their cheaters' lingo. It's all clear once the game's afoot.
Celestino is to be commended for keeping Yonkers Joe moving, with just a touch of awkwardness that balances out some run-of-the-mill dialogue. But his greatest achievement is in casting Christine Lahti as Joe's friend Janice. With honest and pursed-lip strength, Lahti reminds us how important she can be to a film, with a performance that recalls her achievement in Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty more than 20 years ago.
If you can watch Yonkers Joe without thinking it's a mild Rain Man rip-off, you'll enjoy a film that could have been plagued with plot issues, but rises above it. Hey, sometimes it's a crap shoot.
Let's get this bus going. Wapner's coming on.