Tuesday, November 01, 2011

A Chicago Elegy: The Last Rites of Joe May

Joe May is dying. The only question is whether his heath will give out before his karma catches up with. The small time fence is not as bad as many of the thugs he knew, but he probably still has it all coming to him. Still, he might find a measure of redemption in Joe Maggio’s The Last Rites of Joe May (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Joe May just got out of the hospital, but nobody really missed him while he was gone. His landlord already rented out his apartment and trashed most of his belongings. Even though the now homeless May takes out some of his frustrations on the new tenant, they eventually reach an understanding. A single mother nurse with plenty of her own baggage, Jenny Rapp could use some support or at least some company. This is not the Chicago version of Full House though. Of course, her abusive cop boyfriend is less than thrilled with her new flat mate, while for his part, May is not about to turn over a new leaf.

May has not just burned bridges, he has incinerated them. With all his contacts dead or retired, May cannot get stolen goods to hustle. When he approaches Lenny, the new neighborhood kingpin, he is set up to fail. Yet, May lives in denial, constantly promising himself a big score that obviously is not coming. Despite several opportunities to take Rites in a traditional gangster genre direction, Maggio passes them up each and every time. As a result, the film has a genuinely gritty integrity. It is also a heck of a downer.

An eighteen year veteran of the Chicago PD, Dennis Farina has played some ferocious cops and some charismatic gangsters, but May is a role of a different order. Deconstructing his own tough guy persona, Farina creates a portrait of exquisite pathos and self-deceit. He can be charming too. Indeed an operator like May has to be.

Without question, May represents a star turn for Farina, but Jaime Anne Allman is also quite compelling as Rapp. Likewise, Gary Cole’s stone cold work as Lenny packs a real punch. Unfortunately, Maggio places far too light a hand on the rudder, meandering down just about every mean street and back alley in Chicago. Still, he largely redeems his underwritten narrative with a quietly brilliant epilogue that serves as a pitch perfect summation of the film’s protagonist.

Frankly, Farina may have been too good in Rites, making it difficult for Maggio to shave off repetitive scenes and tighten up character development sequences. Ultimately, it is an impressive but tiring work, recommended for fans of Farina and those who still remember old school Chicago with some affection. It opens this Friday (11/4) in New York at the Quad Cinema.