Starring: Chazz Palminteri, Christine Lahti, Tom Guiry, Michael Lerner, Linus Roache. Rated R.
his one-man run on Broadway performing A Bronx
Tale, which he wrote more than two decades
ago and adapted in 1993 for Robert De Niro’s film-directing debut, Chazz
Palminteri returns to the screen with Yonkers Joe, a shrewd move for a native
New Yorker who has
rarely strayed far from his roots. (What’s next? Brooklyn Bennie? Staten Island
Sal?) Whatever the future holds for Palminteri, whose Italian roots and Bronx
upbringing have helped earn him a career playing assorted streetwise heavies,
he seems in his element here, as a working-class hustler who fixes games of
Palminteri, in the title role, wears a stern grimace throughout, forever
calculating his next move in a game fraught with the severest of consequences.
Yonkers Joe may be capable of violence, as a man in his line of work probably
should be, but he is burdened by a conscience that seems to conflict with his
lifestyle and his relationship with an estranged son, Joe Jr.
A 20-year-old with Down syndrome, Joe Jr. (Tom Guiry, of Mystic
River) is impulsive to the point of being
dangerous. He is given to wild, profanity-laced temper tantrums and violent
outbursts, and when his behavior is deemed too unruly for the institution where
he has spent his childhood, it’s up to big Joe and his grifter girlfriend
Janice (Christine Lahti) to take the parental lead. It’s a job Joe assumes
reluctantly as he plans the most daring swindle of his career – he’s planning
to beat the Vegas craps tables with a pair of loaded dice – but he accepts it
with minimal grousing.
From there, Yonkers Joe
becomes a mostly harmonious marriage of two stories, one a Mamet-worthy crime
caper, the other a Rain Man-inspired family drama that follows Joe and his son
as they stumble down a rocky path to mutual understanding. To its credit, Robert
Celestino’s story is neither cloying nor annoyingly melodramatic. It comes as
no surprise that Joe learns to appreciate fatherhood – it is perhaps the only
redemption available to a man as selfish as his line of work might suggest –
but it is Joe Jr.’s complicated relationship with Janice that provides the film’s
tenderest and most harrowing moments.
As Joe Jr., Guiry is startlingly convincing, lending a
fierce, unpredictable edge to an overgrown child whose vulnerabilities are
often masked by a sort of primal rage. But this is Palminteri’s show, thanks to
one of the more rewarding roles of his big-screen career. Joe isn’t a far cry
from the two-bit crooks Palminteri could play in his sleep, and probably has.
Yet there is genuine earnestness behind his piercing stare, a hint of virtue
tarnished but hardly erased by a lifetime of cheating and dubious choices.