Yonkers Joe

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Chicago International Film Festival

CHICAGO -- A domestic drama centered on a small-time gambler who can’t handle his son’s Downs Syndrome, “Yonkers Joe” is an uneven hand of smarts and schmaltz. Winning performances by Chazz Palminteri and Christine Lahti will bolster its chances. “Joe’s” best roll seems most winning as a DVD release or as a cable-demand offering.

“Yonkers Joe” bares the decidedly non-glamorous underside to professional gambling. Joe (Palminteri) ekes out a life by constant hustles -- sports, tables, scams. He’s compulsive/obsessive on the outside; guilt-ridden on the inside. In short, he’s a hollow man with nothing to show: His ex-wife has disappeared and their son (Tom Guiry) suffers from, it seems, Downs Syndrome. For his entire life, Joe has sequestered the child, now turning 21, in an institution. Mentally and emotionally challenged, Joe, Jr. is now prone to angry rants and violent attacks. The facility has kicked him out.

Unable to afford a private living institution and incapable of dealing with his son at home, Joe falls back on his one play. He designs one big crap-game scam to get the money to send his kid away to a private institution. Literally and figuratively, Joe is gambling with his son’s life.

In this hard-scrabble psychological etching, filmmaker Robert Celestino has limned Joe in harsh yet sympathetic lights. Aided by Palminteri’s shaded portrayal, we see Joe is guilt-ridden by his parental failings as well as his inability to maintain any sort of an emotional relationship. He shuts out his pony-playing girlfriend (Lahti), who gets little back from Joe.

Throughout, the players all maintain their emotional edge: Michael Lerner as a shady gadget man with a soft spot for the underdog rings especially true. In addition to the solid acting, the production values aptly convey the grubby and messy emotional life.

Although his storytelling is ambitious and generally well wrought, filmmaker Robert Celestino rolls the story dice too hard: Ultimately, “Yonkers Joe” turns up Hallmark, losing its overall winning story hand.

Magnolia Pictures, Go Productions, Trent Othick Productions
Cast: Chazz Palminteri, Christine Lahti, Tom Guiry, Michael Lerner, Linus Roache, Michael Rispoli.
Director/screenwriter: Robert Celestino.
Producer: Trent Othick.
Director of photography: Michael Fimognari.
Production designer: Jeanina Vasilescu.
Music: Chris Hajian.
Editors: Gary Friedman, Jim Makiej.
Rated R, 100 minutes.

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