Something about Yonkers Joe bugged me.
Don't get me wrong; it was a very well-made and well-acted film, with a very touching story about fathers, sons, and the difficulties of raising special needs kids. It's got two stars, Chazz Palminteri and Christine Lahti, that give their usual solid performances. And it even has a story that's got some nice tension and is emotionally satisfying.
But something bugged me. And I couldn't put my finger on why until the very end, but when I did, it made my discomfort crystal clear: This guy's a crook. Why should I care about him at all?
Listen, I'm no prude. I've enjoyed many movies that had criminals and hoodlums as their heroes, from The Godfather to Get Shorty. What I don't understand is why directors, producers, and screenwriters feed us one stereotypical small-time hood after another and expect us to care about them, even when they're ripping off supposedly evil entities like casinos and corporations. A slimeball is a slimeball, even if he has a developmentally-disabled son, like Yonkers Joe (Palminteri) has.
Joe and his buddies in crime like to rip off fellow slimeballs; they use fake dice, shave down cards, and fix poker games. Their hauls aren't much, a few thousand here and there, but it's enough to give Joe a Lincoln and a nice house in Yonkers. His girlfriend Janice (Lahti) works his scams from time to time -- an early scene in the movie shows the two of them getting caught making suspicious moves at a craps table in Atlantic City -- but she mostly just handicaps horses. Life rolls along until Joe finds out that his son, Joe Jr. (Tom Guiry), is being booted out of the special school where he lives for being violent and profane. He's old enough to go to a group home, anyway, but the senior Joe is facing six months of having to take care of his highly-functioning but still disabled son before that happens, something he can't handle. So he wants to make one huge score in Las Vegas in order to send him to a private school. During the planning of this score he learns lessons in fatherhood, love, and what it means to have someone to care for in your life.
If you're expecting tough guy antics in Yonkers Joe, you won't be disappointed; between Palminteri and his gang -- the standouts are Michael Lerner as Stanley, whose job is to make the fake dice and other devices, and Linus Roache, who yet again barely squelches his British accent in playing henchman Teddy -- you've got enough "heeeys" and "fuggedaboudits" to last you a while. And the fact that writer / director Robert Celestino set the movie in the gritty suburbs of Yonkers makes for a unique setting. Even his choice of Las Vegas setting, in the older, more old-school Fremont Street area rather than on the Strip, evokes a feel for the Rat Pack-era Vegas that you just can't get at the MGM Grand.
Also of note is Guiry's performance as Joe Jr. If you've seen him in other projects (like the defunct TV series The Black Donnellys), you know that he is not disabled, and he doesn't try to make a big show of playing someone disabled here. Since Junior is supposed to be high-functioning, you can equally believe that he knows the meaning of "reconstructive surgery" as well as talk about a woman's private parts like he's a child.
But the key to the movie is in the relationship Joe has with his son, and this is where the problem is. It has to do with the climax to the movie, which I won't reveal here. It's explained in a speech Palminteri gives right before the event, and it just doesn't ring right to me. It just brought me back to the fact that Joe is a hood, and made me stop caring about him a little bit.
Otherwise, Yonkers Joe is a fun, oddly sweet movie. I just wish Joe senior had a more legitimate career. Maybe something in waste management. No, wait...