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Yonkers Joe: Puttin' on the Grift

Following his one-man run on Broadway performing A Bronx Tale, which he wrote more than two decades ago and adapted in 1993 for Robert De Niro’s film-directing debut, Chazz Palminteri returns to the screen with Yonkers Joe, a shrewd move for a native New Yorker who has rarely strayed far from his roots. (What’s next? Brooklyn Bennie? Staten Island Sal?) Whatever the future holds for Palminteri, whose Italian roots and Bronx upbringing have helped earn him a career playing assorted streetwise heavies, he seems in his element here, as a working-class hustler who fixes games of chance.

Palminteri, in the title role, wears a stern grimace throughout, forever calculating his next move in a game fraught with the severest of consequences. Yonkers Joe may be capable of violence, as a man in his line of work probably should be, but he is burdened by a conscience that seems to conflict with his lifestyle and his relationship with an estranged son, Joe Jr.

A 20-year-old with Down syndrome, Joe Jr. (Tom Guiry, of Mystic River) is impulsive to the point of being dangerous. He is given to wild, profanity-laced temper tantrums and violent outbursts, and when his behavior is deemed too unruly for the institution where he has spent his childhood, it’s up to big Joe and his grifter girlfriend Janice (Christine Lahti) to take the parental lead. It’s a job Joe assumes reluctantly as he plans the most daring swindle of his career – he’s planning to beat the Vegas craps tables with a pair of loaded dice – but he accepts it with minimal grousing.

From there, Yonkers Joe becomes a mostly harmonious marriage of two stories, one a Mamet-worthy crime caper, the other a Rain Man-inspired family drama that follows Joe and his son as they stumble down a rocky path to mutual understanding. To its credit, Robert Celestino’s story is neither cloying nor annoyingly melodramatic. It comes as no surprise that Joe learns to appreciate fatherhood – it is perhaps the only redemption available to a man as selfish as his line of work might suggest – but it is Joe Jr.’s complicated relationship with Janice that provides the film’s tenderest and most harrowing moments.

As Joe Jr., Guiry is startlingly convincing, lending a fierce, unpredictable edge to an overgrown child whose vulnerabilities are often masked by a sort of primal rage. But this is Palminteri’s show, thanks to one of the more rewarding roles of his big-screen career. Joe isn’t a far cry from the two-bit crooks Palminteri could play in his sleep, and probably has. Yet there is genuine earnestness behind his piercing stare, a hint of virtue tarnished but hardly erased by a lifetime of cheating and dubious choices.