Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Gambling Life of Yonkers Joe

Casino commercials have become ubiquitous on New York television. Heck, jazz vocalist John Pizzarelli actually gets requests for his Foxwoods casino jingle at gigs. However, for a small-time card-cheat, those mini-gambling palaces are bad for business. Palming cards and switching dice might be a high percentage play at pick-up games, but the casinos play for keeps. Cheating is hard work and earning a dishonest buck is getting harder than ever in Robert Celestino’s Yonkers Joe (trailer here), which opens in New York tomorrow.

Yonkers Joe takes pride in “stealing with his hands.” He is not a fast-talking conman. If his marks are shocked to lose their money, they should not be gambling in the first place. A skilled craftsman, his work has a certain blue collar quality despite its irregular nature. Unfortunately business is off now that all the suckers are giving their money directly to the casinos.

The cardsharp’s recession came at a bad time for Joe. His special needs son, Joe, Jr. graduated from boarding school and suddenly Joe, Sr. has to act like a parent until he can afford to dump his namesake off at an expensive assisted living community. As a result, Senior becomes obsessed with taking down a big casino, but that is serious business that his cronies and long-suffering girlfriend try to discourage.

Yonkers takes us on a tour of racetracks, casinos, and union hall crap games, showing us a world of working class vice rarely seen on film. To its credit, the film never glamorizes gambling. Quite the contrary, casinos and gambling dens seem like miserably tacky places to spend time, but that is where the money is. The stakes of their big caper are also refreshingly small, involving efforts to get loaded dice in and out of a casino game for a modest run at the table’s pass line. Sure, for Yonkers Joe and company, it is big money, but it is not like breaking the bank at Monte Carlo.

Chazz Palminteri is convincingly street smart as Joe, Sr., bringing an on-screen intensity to the title role. As Stanley, his dice loading associate, Michael Lerner also brings real zest to the film. When they ply their trade, Yonkers is a smart, breezy film. Unfortunately, the family drama with Joe, Jr. tends to bog down, without ever really breaking any new ground. Celestino wraps everything up a little too neatly too, given the magnitude of some of Junior’s acting out. Still, to the film’s credit, Yonkers Joe’s character never undergoes any totally unbelievable transformations into father-of-the-year.

Forgiving the sometimes overdone father-son melodrama, Yonkers is clever little portrait of smalltime rounders and grifters. While not perfect, it is one of the stronger screen depictions of the gambling life in recent years. It opens tomorrow in New York at the Quad Cinema.