Movie Review: THE LAST RITES OF JOE MAY

THE LAST RITES OF JOE MAY features a stunning performance from Dennis Farina as an ailing short money man in a world that’s moved on.

Joe Maggio’s The Last Rites of Joe May screened on the second evening of the Tribeca Film Festival On The Road series brought to Houston by American Express, with director Joe Maggio and producers Bill Straus and Stephanie Striegel in attendance. The film stars Dennis Farina as the ailing short money hustler of the title. Joe is stricken with pneumonia and in the hospital for almost two months; upon discharge he learns that he has lost his apartment, his car and his standing in the hustler hierarchy. The struggling single mother who has rented his former apartment offers to let him split the rent with her, and Joe May finds himself with two new roommates and a pack of new problems.

The Last Rites of Joe May first and foremost boasts a tremendous performance from Dennis Farina. He plays Joe May as down but not out, pissed at the world but with a plan. Everyone he runs into after he leaves the hospital offers the same line, “Joe May. I thought you were dead!” Joe wears a leather blazer like a uniform, sits on the same stool at the same bar every day and orders the same shot and a beer. But when he prepares for a minor scam, the audience sees a glimpse of the younger Joe from another time, when the rules were different and he knew how to play the game. He’s charming and wily, with a glimmer in his eye and a swagger in his step.

Farina’s scenes with young Angelina (Meredith Droeger) are lovely because they are free of mawkishness. At one point as she’s watching him set up a pigeon coop on the roof of their apartment building, he mutters, “I’ve been having a pretty shitty time of it lately.” Angelina nods solemnly, “Me too.” Farina snorts and tells her to get used to it; “Sometimes you’re on top of the world and other times you’re floating in the crapper.” Angelina takes in his advice thoughtfully. The scene is adorable but not precious. Angelina really is having a shitty time of it lately, as her mother Jenny (Jamie Anne Allman) is dating a cruel, violent cop (Ian Barford) who makes life miserable for everyone in the apartment.

All of the performances are top-notch. Droeger and Allman have no problem carrying their weight in scenes with the great Farina, Barford is a truly convincing creep, and Gary Cole is excellent as always as hustler boss Lenny, who has no patience with Joe May and his problems. The film is shot beautifully with Chicago as an almost tangible backdrop. The pacing isn’t perfect; the film is too slow at times, too quiet in some points and with a too-heavy operatic score at others. But the tone is subtle and nuanced. This is a bleak story, no doubt, but with bright moments of benevolence and humor offering levity at the moments it’s most needed.

After a dramatic climax, the film ends with a mundane conversation and the clinking of forks on a plate as the credits slowly roll over the scene. It’s a poignant reminder of the casual casualty of life. The Last Rites of Joe May is a rousing tale of one man’s redemption, but it’s also a brutal reminder that one man’s redemption means very little to the world at large.

(Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images for Momentum)

After the film, we were treated to a Q&A with director Joe Maggio and producers Bill Straus and Stephanie Striegel. Maggio said the film was originally set in Brooklyn, but after casting Farina, “You just don’t buy Dennis Farina as anything but Chicago.” They rewrote the film and moved it to Chicago, doing a lot of research to get it right. Maggio said Farina was a Chicago cop for twenty years (?!), so he had access to a lot of local resources for the film, in addition to the rebate and tax incentives offered for filming in Chicago.

Maggio said he was inspired to write the film after an ex-girlfriend told him in 1991 that he was “going to die a lonely and broken old man.” Maggio said, as a screenwriter, he connects to Joe May in that he’s “always convinced that something great is around the corner.” Maggio’s uncles and grandfather were all short money con-men, with no real jobs but with trunks full of stuff to sell. He said they were these larger than life men, always well-dressed and clean-shaven with a great haircut. He was fascinated by them as a kid and wanted to write a movie about what happens to those men when the world has moved on and the rules have changed.

Straus said in order to make this film–or any film–he always maintains the attitude of “We’re a go.” He said it’s easy to wait for the right actor or for a certain amount of money, but if you act as if the film is going to be made at any moment, it can be. He said that The Last Rites of Joe May was made for under $500k. Straus said that after he met with Maggio and heard the story, he was very interested in the film (it was the third or fourth pitched to him by Maggio), but it wasn’t until involving Stephanie Striegel in the project that the film really got going.

Maggio said that audiences are responding very well, particularly Chicago audiences who feel that the film is tremendously representative of the city. He said he never wanted to be too sentimental, but he wanted the emotion to feel authentic and to resonate with audiences. He struck that tone perfectly in The Last Rites of Joe May; watch the trailer below and tell me what you think.

You can read about the first day of the Tribeca Film Festival and reviews of Janie Jones and Mr. Stache here. Tune in tomorrow for a review and Q&A of Vincent D’onofrio’s slasher musical Don’t Go In The Woods!

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