Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Yonkers Joe -

Yonkers Joe - seems to have it all. Start with a name cast performing well - Chazz Palminteri in the title role, Christine Lahti as his girlfriend Janice and Tom Guiry as his son Joe, almost twenty-one years old with Down Syndrome. Add a background where mechanics, hustlers who use their hands instead of their mouths to cheat in poker and craps, reveal some tricks of the trade - real sleight of hand that is more impressive than a slew of special effects. Finish with a bang - Yonkers Joe risks all to build a real relationship with a son he has kept at a distance, just as he's risking all to run a pair of doctored dice into a Vegas craps game as he tries to pull off the score of his life.

So why didn't I like this picture more? The early pacing is slow, but the interesting background on cheating makes this tolerable and the story ultimately gathers speed and some pleasant unpredictability. The real problem lies elsewhere. Palminteri is too good at being bad. Yonkers Joe is adept at cheating rubes out of their paychecks, not just casinos. Joe has no relationship with his son, he just wants to rush him back into another institution so he won't have to put up with him, even for a few months. Lahti's Janice is fiercely realistic about herself, but what does she see in Yonkers Joe? Joe is so thoroughly repellent for the first two thirds of this film that by the time he finally shows some interest in his son it's a little hard to swallow. The story ultimately forces you to root for Yonkers Joe, but the early scenes just don't plant the seeds that would explain his conversion or make you want to like him. There's enough here to recommend a rental, but not a trip to the theater at full price.

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