By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Writer-director Joe Maggio’s “The Last Rites of Joe May” asserts that even insignificant characters aren’t exempt from very great tragedies. A petty hood most contented when he has a trunk full of phony Rolexes to sell, Chicago’s Joe May nonetheless figures he was destined for greatness. Gosh knows why the last sixty years have proved differently.
Portrayed with fine skill and touching sympathy by Dennis Farina, Joe exits the county hospital after a long bout with pneumonia. Although quite unprepared for the coming winter in his brown leather gangster jacket, with his shoes polished their shiniest black and his silver hair meticulously coifed, he is perfectly dressed for the part he has chosen.
Pity is, he didn’t choose a better part. A Sancho Panza of never fully imagined, let alone realized, dreams, he has stuck to it despite every sensible evidence to the contrary. Farina mines all the nooks and crannies to be pondered…quite an accomplishment when you consider that that he does it without ever relinquishing Joe’s ultimately shallow horizons.
Thus it follows that if some great destiny does truly beckon, then he must be hooked up with a proper Dulcinea. Inconvenient for him but convenient to Mr. Maggio’s effective but largely uninventive script, she awaits when he returns to his since rented apartment. In his defense, the landlord, like so many others, exclaims, “I thought you were dead.”
Some legacy, huh? Maybe Joe can change that. At least that’s the plot. And here’s his chance. Her name is Jenny (Jamie Ann Allman). Yes, she has a past. And no, she’s not proud of it. But just to make it worse, Stan (Ian Barford), her predatory cop-boyfriend, has been feeding on her vulnerability. When he isn’t beating her, he’s blackmailing her.
The scum bucket’s key source of extortion is Jenny’s young daughter, Angelina, who explains to an unsurprised Joe that Stan isn’t her real dad. The last time Jenny stepped out of line, Children’s Services was at the door. In much more vulgar terms than I’ll venture here, at the clichéd pigeon coop he tends on the roof, Joe tells Angelina that life is lousy.
Still, now that the old gent has become a border, an arrangement reached since Jenny can use the cash and Joe had vowed to regain his digs anyway, things are looking up for both sweet urchin and unlikely father figure. Jenny brings home discarded food from the hospital where she works, Chicago looms cold and uncaringly, and Joe seeks an angle.
But the trouble with Joe goes way back before he was a tarnished golden ager with a hacking cough. He’s small time, and aside from a pal here or there, is seen as a joke. The snide, second generation don who holds court at a luncheonette’s back table makes no attempt to hide that perception while Joe stands hat in hand asking for an easy touch.
Make no mistake about it. Self-deluded, egocentric and essentially a thief, his aren’t the characteristics you want in a friend. Yet, we ultimately grow to care for him nonetheless, which actually says more about our species than about Joe himself. In our finer moments, we grant grace, tolerance and mercy… an attribute at the heart of all civilized cultures.
Watching him primp and polish, attempting to foster the sharpie image of himself that didn’t fool anyone even in his salad days, we bemoan the miserably narcissistic values that are his ethos. Yet, in practically the same thought, we cheer the effort, the never-say-die hope for glory and fulfillment, no matter how selfish or preposterous.
We feel less charitable toward the story structure that supports Mr. Farina’s efforts. Although well acted, if you separate it from the protagonist’s plight, Jenny and Angelina’s tale is but a prop, a familiar theme sans any nuance or variation to give it a life of its own. Without a good corroborative story line, we can hardly pine for a subplot.
Given his own chance for glory, ironically paralleling the film’s metaphor, Mr. Farina, heretofore Cop or Mafioso #3 for most of his career, takes the ball and runs it a respectable distance. Check out Joe’s leg of lamb fiasco for true pathos. But it would take five or six more moments with that kind of inspiration to earn the film full redemption.
Mr. Maggio directs more carefully than creatively, choosing to piece the storyboards together instead of venturing the sort of stylistic flourish that could either distinguish or destroy his movie. Perhaps a fitting tribute to the bargain basement hood portrayed, “The Last Rites of Joe May” will best be enjoyed on the cheap, when it comes to video.
“The Last Rites of Joe May,” unrated at press time, is a Tribeca Films release directed by Joe Maggio and stars Dennis Farina, Jamie Anne Allman and Meredith Droeger. Running time: 103 minutes
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