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Thursday, May 14, 2009

YONKERS JOE -- DVD review by porfle

An absorbing tale of small-time card and dice hustlers scheming to beat the craps table at a big Las Vegas casino shares the spotlight with the sometimes tedious drama of a reluctant father and his Down Syndrome son in YONKERS JOE (2008), with mixed results.

The story grabs us from the get-go as we find the title character, played to perfection by Chazz Palminteri, and his girlfriend and cohort in crime Janice (the equally good Christine Lahti), getting busted for switching dice and kicked out of a local casino. Frustrated by the ever-tightening security measures being implemented to thwart his livelihood, Joe comes up with a daring plan which, if he and his buddies can pull it off, will net them a big payoff in Vegas.

Meanwhile, Joe's mentally-challenged son Joe, Jr. (Tom Guiry) lands in his lap after getting ousted from an institution for excessive swearing and fighting. Joe can get him into a better facility if he can come up with enough cash, but until then we get the usual hand-wringing dramatics as he finds himself totally ill-equipped to deal with his son's manic outbursts, extreme emotional needs, and general instability.

This half of the movie pounces on the other half and wrestles it into submission every time our attention is diverted from the fun stuff. It wouldn't be so bad, perhaps, if Guiry were more convincing as a person with Down Syndrome. According to the "making of" featurette, he lived with such a person for awhile in order to assume the proper behavior and speech patterns, but it would appear as though they both spent the whole time watching Three Stooges comedies. Guiry's unconvincing mannerisms take me out of the movie almost every time he's onscreen.

When Joe, Jr. starts to respond amorously to Janice's thoughtful and affectionate treatment of him, you just know it isn't going to turn out well. So when he goes slap, drooling nuts, climbs aboard, and starts treating her like a donkey ride at the zoo...well, jeez, if you're going to have a character like this and he's important to the story you're trying to tell, at least tone him the heck down a tad, okay?

Fortunately, the other half of the movie is a fascinating look at the art of being a card and dice "mechanic"--the sort of guy who can pick up white dice and throw red ones, or shuffle a deck of cards twice and still deal himself three aces. When security forces Joe to open his hand at the craps table, he complies, revealing an empty palm while holding the trick dice behind his fingers. But aside from amazing manual dexterity, beating the casino under the watchful eyes of trained cheat-spotters and multiple cameras requires incredible cunning.

Joe's audacious plan to do just that is what makes this movie so much fun to watch, especially when we see his team of accomplices each making their own sly contributions to the deception. In the final suspenseful showdown between the deceiver and the deceived, the success or failure of the plan all comes down to one well-placed mug of beer.

Joe, Jr., inevitably becomes a major player in the whole thing as well. In a shot that's a bit too reminiscent of RAIN MAN, he descends into the frame on an escalator wearing a white three-piece suit, raring to do his part and make Dad proud of him. While contrived, this actually works out okay, and in their final scene together we get a somewhat satisfying emotional moment between father and son that helps send the movie off on a strong note.

Writer-director Robert Celestino's longtime fascination with "mechanics" such as Yonkers Joe comes to fruition with this generally successful effort. His direction is assured but unobtrusive, with able assistance from cinematographer Michael Fimognari and a sensitive score by Chris Hajian. The cast, except for Guiry, is fine. It's always good to see Chazz Palminteri playing something besides a mob boss, and Christine Lahti being given a role that allows her to show off her skill and likability. Michael Lerner is also good as an aging hustler who's had enough of taking the big risks. Together, they breath life into Celestino's surprisingly warm story, which underplays the usual Vegas-scam schtick.

The DVD image is 1.78:1 widescreen with 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital sound; both are good. Subtitles are available in Spanish only. Extras include "Behind the Scenes", a fifteen-minute look at the production with cast and crew interviews, followed by three shorter featurettes--"The Moves" (a demonstration of some of the slick card and dice tricks from the film), "The Look" with cinematographer Michael Fimognari, and "Meet Fast Jack", a compelling profile of real-life "mechanic" John Farrell, who served as the film's technical adviser. Finally, we get a brief montage of scenes from the film's premiere.

You may think Tom Guiry does a great job as Joe, Jr. and that the father-son stuff is the best part of the movie. In which case, you'll enjoy YONKERS JOE more than I did. For me, though, the story of Joe and his pals is what makes the movie watchable. If I could edit my own special edition of this film, it would concentrate more on the relationship between Joe and Janice, and their daring scheme to outwit Las Vegas out of a pile of cash. And Joe wouldn't have any kids.

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