The Last Rites of Joe May: Tribeca Review

Downbeat vision of a small-time crook's final days offers a plum role for Dennis Farina.

Dennis Farina gets the enviable opportunity to humanize the kind of character he has sometimes exaggerated comically in glossier films.

NEW YORK — An elegy for a nobody who, with a break or two, might have amounted to something, Joe Maggio'sThe Last Rites of Joe May provides star Dennis Farina the enviable opportunity to humanize the kind of character he has sometimes exaggerated comically in glossier films. Though too downbeat to be considered mainstream anytime after 1980, the drama's convincing performances and sense of place could pay off at the arthouse.

We're introduced to Farina's title character as he prepares to leave the hospital after a long stay for pneumonia: Through his precise grooming and crisp farewells, we quickly understand a lot about a man who knows how to comport himself even when things aren't going his way. Sadly, what awaits outside will test May's self-image more than a hospital gown did.

May returns to his Chicago apartment to find, shades of The Visitor, that somebody else is living there. A single mom (Jamie Anne Allman) and her daughter (Meredith Droeger) have rented the place from a landlord who assumed Joe was dead. The movie never explains how Joe forgot to call his landlord to explain his long absence, but the failed wiseguy couldn't have paid the rent anyway: He has just over 400 bucks in the bank, a car impounded and sold as abandoned and no prospects.

Wrapped in a thin leather jacket that offers faded panache but little protection from the Chicago winter (captured effectively in DP Jay Silver's wintry hues), Joe canvasses old haunts that have forgotten him in record time.

In a particularly affecting sequence, he musters all the dignity he has to visit a kingpin (Gary Cole, withering in his bored disdain) in hopes of stolen goods he might fence ("some fuggezeh watches or somethin'"). He gets a 50-pound hunk of lamb instead, and Joe's daylong attempt to sell the blood-dripping loot is a study in slow-crumble humiliation.

Meanwhile, the new tenant in Joe's place -- no stranger to hard times, or abusive boyfriends -- has taken him in to help with the rent. Here the script's reliance on cliché (the way Joe starts gruff but goes soft with the child he must sometimes care for; the pigeon coop the lonely old man keeps on the roof; the sensitive side that only emerges when he listens to opera LPs) is impossible to ignore.

But Maggio, whose '70s-sourced, matter-of-fact urban vision leaves little room for mawkishness, doesn't lean too hard on these elements. Instead he uses the familiar framework as a showcase for his star -- calmly watching Farina's magnificently unhandsome face as the actor easily transmits the mixtures of honor and dishonesty, persistence and disappointment, that keep this would-be big shot ticking.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival, World Narrative Competition section
Production Companies: You're Faded Films, Billy Goat Pictures, Steppenwolf Films
Cast: Dennis Farina, Jamie Anne Allman, Ian Barford, Meredith Droeger, Chelcie Ross, Gary Cole
Director-screenwriter: Joe Maggio
Producers: Bill Straus, Stephanie Striegel
Executive producers: Tim Evans, Dennis Mastro
Director of photography: Jay Silver
Production designer: Merje Veski
Music: Lindsay Marcus
Costume designer: Emma Potter
Editor: Seth Anderson
Sales: Nate Bolotin, XYZ Films
No rating, 106 minutes