Robert Calestino hasn’t had a lot of experience as either a writer or director, and it shows in Yonkers Joe. When he’s writing about the things he obviously knows and understands, the film is quite good and extremely engaging. Unfortunately, Calestino felt compelled to bring some heart into his picture in the person of Joe, Jr. While he thinks he’s adding a necessary emotional element to the story, he’s really delivering a distraction that makes the film somewhat less than it ought to be. This is a clear case of more being less. I’m not sure why Calestino the writer or the director felt the need to bog down his brilliantly crafted world of these con artists and attempt to make it about the emotional turmoil between father and son. It only serves to take us out of the movie with each predictable development. My advice for Calestino? Next time, stick with what you know.
Yonkers Joe (Palminteri) is a card and dice mechanic; that’s to say that he’s skilled in manipulating these items for the purposes of cheating. He can deal from almost anywhere in the deck or even switch the deck entirely with flawless precision. Even when you know it’s coming, you just can’t see it. He can do the same with dice. He can switch dice in a game with everyone watching, including a casino’s camera system. He has a dream of taking his skills to the big time. He wants to take down an Atlantic City, or even better, a Vegas casino with his dice skills. His personal life is intruding upon the dream. His son has Down’s Syndrome and has been living in a facility most of his life. Joe’s rarely seen his kid. Now the boy’s about to turn 21 and can no longer live in the juvenile facility. The staff has tried to convince Joe, Jr. (Guiry) that he would be better in a group home where he can get a job and function somewhat normally. Jr. loves where he’s at and is not very good with change. Joe decides to take him home for three weeks and try and convince him to move to the group home. Joe’s partner/lover, Janice (Lahti) develops a soft spot for the boy and thinks the three of them can become a somewhat normal family. Circumstances remind her that none of them can be considered normal. Meanwhile Joe is developing his plan to take down a Vegas casino. He can switch the dice just fine, but the casinos mark their bones with a special dye that shows up on the security cameras. That way they instantly know when a loaded pair show up in the game no matter how clean the switch. Predictably, Jr. becomes an important link in the plan, and eventually he discovers himself in the process.
At times, this is a very good movie. Actors like Chazz Palminteri, Michael Lerner, and Michael Rispoli have their characters down perfectly. Lerner is particularly good as the mechanic’s mechanic, known for creating the tools of the trade. They develop an almost shorthand dialog that works from the start. You’ll honestly get the feeling that you’ve been brought inside this old school group of hoods. And while Tom Guiry does an outstanding job in his performance of Jr., the character and the story element always feel out of place. Each of these scenes always appears forced and unnatural. It might not even be so noticeable if the movie didn’t create a wonderful underworld here. It’s a shame, really. I would love to see another story with these characters. I love them, but I want to see Yonkers Joe and his group stay totally immersed in their world without the burden of an extraneous story that’s obviously only intended to pull some heartstrings.
Yonkers Joe is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This is strictly an ultra-real look. Colors are natural enough, but nothing’s going to impress the heck out of you. While it’s merely an average presentation, it becomes almost invisible. You can get so caught up in this world that you begin to not even think about things like image quality.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track works well in this dialog driven piece. There are some fine examples of ambient sounds here, but most of the action is front and center. The score is appropriately subtle and low key. While there is nothing exciting at all about this presentation, it fits the mood of the film perfectly.
Behind The Scenes: (14:50) Cast and crew offer up a light and amusing look at the culture of the film. The subject matter appears to have captivated everyone involved.
The Moves: (6:30) Calestino demonstrates many of the tricks from the film. He’s quite a mechanic himself, and his moves here are very impressive.
Meet Fast Joe: (8:50) John Farrell was the technical advisor on the movie and pretty much lived the life of Yonkers Joe. He offers up some great stories, and then in a bit of a turnaround he sheds some tears about his life.
The Look: (5:37) This is pretty much a continuation of the first feature. It contains the same interview sessions and looks at the filming locations and overall style of the movie.
Yonkers Joe Premiere: (7:13) Footage from the opening screening includes interview clips and film clips.
If you’ve ever played cards or craps, this movie makes you think twice. I’ve always been lucky in poker, but you have to wonder if you’d ever run into a mechanic like Joe. I found it to be a pretty entertaining movie and would have absolutely loved it without the heartstrings. If you ever gamble at all, you have to watch this movie at least once. It will be a real eye opener. I intend to share the extras at my next poker game. No matter how small the stakes, “every bet counts”.