Magnolia Pictures // 2008 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 5th, 2009
When you're this good, luck has nothing to do with it.
Chazz Palminteri has one of Hollywood's most interesting faces, doesn't he? His distinct features put him right at home in a certain sort of film. Just take a look at his resume, and consider the titles of many of his films: A Bronx Tale, Wiseguy, Bullets Over Broadway, The Usual Suspects, and Poolhall Junkies. When I heard of a film called Yonkers Joe, somehow I knew that Palminteri would be in it without even looking at the cover. The actor is a tremendously gifted thespian who too often gets stuck with standard-issue gangster roles. In this film, he gets an opportunity to play a leading role. While Palminteri's considerable talents are certainly on display here, the film itself proves to be something of a disappointment.
Unsurprisingly, we first meet Yonkers Joe (Palminteri) inside a casino. He wanders the floor, seemingly looking for a game that seems promising. He sees a woman (Christine Lahti, Chicago Hope) who seems to be cheating. We pull away to security personnel examining footage in their hi-tech surveillance room. They catch her. Bulky men slowly begin to walk toward the woman. Determining to intervene, Joe wanders over to the woman and whispers, "You've been made." This is a very good sequence that wonderfully captures the tension of high-risk cheating, and whenever the film returns to such material, it works quite well. Alas, there's another story the film is interested in telling.
It seems that Joe and the woman are actually husband and wife, working together as a team inside the casino. They don't usually engage in such high-stakes behavior, as Joe makes most of his money from local card games and small cons with his pals. His best friend is Stanley (Michael Lerner, Barton Fink), a wise man with a cool head who often keeps Joe's considerable temper in check. Joe has a son named Joe Jr. (Tom Guiry, The Black Donnellys) from a previous marriage. Sadly, Joe Jr. is diagnosed with Downs Syndrome, and is struggling with behavior issues. Yonkers Joe has never had a particularly close relationship with his son, but he's finally trying to change that. Meanwhile, he plans a Big Final Score, attempting to take on one of the most security-heavy casinos in Las Vegas.
So, is Yonkers Joe a father-son drama or a heist film? Both, I guess. The primary problem is that the former is clichéd and unconvincing, while the latter is compelling and realistic. The scenes between Palminteri and Guiry play like a watered-down Rain Man filtered through the artistic sensibilities of I Am Sam. The relationship is presented in an initially complex manner, but the film fails to capitalize on that complexity, providing very mundane and simple quick-fix solutions to a relationship that obviously has a lot of serious issues that would actually take a lot of work to deal with. There are individual moments that resonate, such as an Of Mice and Men-inspired scene in which a confused Joe Jr. attempts to rape his step-mother. However, this sort of scene only sets up bland aftermath. Joe Jr. gets a mild beating from Palminteri, but afterwards the moment is forgotten about and left alone. It doesn't help matters much that Guiry's performance far too often feels like an unconvincing put-on.
Still, the film isn't a complete waste of time. With some selective editing, it probably could have been trimmed into a cool 50-minute tale of a guy carefully planning the biggest crime of his life. There's an excellent attention to detail in this department that at the very least shows that the filmmakers did a good deal of research before jumping into production. Though the dialogue lacks the sparkle and wit of David Mamet's work, Yonkers Joe does indeed recall the likes of House of Games from time to time. Even so, why not just watch actual Mamet instead of imitation Mamet with a limp, tacked-on secondary plotline? Palminteri, Lahti and Lerner are all engaging and nuanced here, but not enough to warrant the film a recommendation.
The cinematography throughout is rather unimpressive, employing poor lighting choices and an ungainly color palette. The transfer follows suit by offering up a grubby-looking image that is particularly weak in terms of detail and rather murky more often than not. The audio is also less than impressive, particularly in the dialogue department. Sometimes it's rather difficult to make out what people are saying. The final scene in particular is poorly handled, as the music can't seem to decide whether or not it wants to drown out the dialogue exchange. It's fine if you fade out and allow the music to take over, but if you're going to let us hear what the people are saying, let us hear it. Very irritating. Five brief featurettes are included here, most of which focus on illuminating the art of con games: "Behind the Scenes," "The Moves," "The Look," "Meet Fast Jack," and "Yonkers Joe Premiere."
Guilty of trying to be more than it needs to be.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R