Lost in Yonkers

Yonkers Joe
Running time 101 minutes
Written and directed by Robert Celestino
Starring Chazz Palminteri, Christine Lahti

Music may be grooving along, but the new movie season is off to a crippling hobble. In a dull, well-acted and nicely photographed waste of time called Yonkers Joe, Chazz Palminteri plays the title role, a dice-addicted card shark beyond the prime of middle age saddled with the responsibility of a retarded 20-year-old son, also named Joe. Already banned from Atlantic City for cheating with loaded dice, Joe is figuring out his next con when the mentally challenged Joe Jr. (wonderfully and imaginatively played by Tom Guiry) gets expelled from the institution where he has lived for the past 12 years—ignored and locked away by his father—for profanity and violence. In order to make enough money to get the kid off his hands for good and pack him off to an expensive group home, Big Joe organizes a scheme to brave the steep security in Las Vegas and make a killing with the aid of his girlfriend, Janice (a miscast Christine Lahti, in a role better suited for Marisa Tomei). When Janice offers the kid the kind of motherly understanding he is desperate for, he mistakes compassion for sexual attraction and a near-rape ensues. But when the casino plans go awry, all is forgiven and it’s the kid who begs to drop the loaded dice on the crap table while the grown-ups distract the pit bosses. The son thinks he’s helping his dad, the father thinks it’s a way to redeem his guilt and make the boy a man. Nobody seems to worry that if they get caught, the penalty is a 10-year prison stretch. Under the perfunctory direction of Robert Celestino, Yonkers Joe is less compelling than you might guess.

Still, the script (by Mr. Celestino) is tailor-made for Mr. Palminteri (who executive-produced) as a tough-as-nails goon with a warm heart just above the paunch. The actors are all charged with realism, especially young Mr. Guiry, who plays the conflicting personality traits of an aging adolescent with Down syndrome with blasts of fury and emotional need, like a stocky animal in the cage of his own body. With his rounded shoulders and wrinkled grin, walking lopsided as he shifts his weight from one foot to the other, he shifts intense moods faster than you can change dice in midair. He suggests a cross between Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. The script catalogs myriad crooked-gambler maneuvers (beware women who rifle through their handbag for cosmetics in the middle of a crap game) and terminology (“tops” are dice on which you can see only three sides of the cube at once) but never really draws you into the troubled father-son relationship. Big Joe may feel culpable after ignoring Little Joe for years, but mending the past by giving the kid a major role in his high-stakes con game to beat the house is an unconvincing road to redemption. Yonkers Joe can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a treacly family melodrama or a heist flick about hard-edged losers with hearts of taffy.

rreed@observer.com Lost in Yonkers