Yonkers Joe

Yonkers Joe

I’ve always liked Chazz Palminteri’s work. He was terrific in A Bronx Tale, for instance. But I wonder about his range, since at least in the movies I’ve seen him in, it seems like he always plays virtually the same character.

Well, in any case he’s good in that kind of role.

Yonkers Joe is no exception. Palminteri plays the title character, a slick New York gambler and cheat who is especially skilled at manipulating dice.

There are basically two main interwoven storylines in Yonkers Joe. About half of the movie is about Joe’s work with several confederates to make money cheating at gambling, culminating in a ballsy scheme to introduce loaded dice into a Vegas craps game. The rest of the movie is about Joe’s relationship with his mentally retarded son, whom he and his girlfriend take in temporarily as the only available option when the previously-institutionalized boy turns 21.

For me, neither storyline is great and neither is a dud. Both held my interest reasonably well.

Though the gambling elements I suppose are equally or more entertaining than the relationship elements, I did struggle with the former in at least two respects.

One, though it’s not completely ridiculous, I found it a bit hard to buy the idea that even the greatest dice mechanic armed with the cleverest of plans would have any realistic chance of swindling a major Vegas casino. Maybe I’m wrong and that kind of thing happens, but I guess I just assume that such entities have the kind of extraordinary security that would make that form of cheating impossible.

Two, perhaps more important, Yonkers Joe furthers the common perception that gambling is somehow normally or inherently associated with cheating.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the gambling world—mostly sportsbetting, with lesser exposure to casino gambling and poker—and I think the reality is a lot more complicated than that.

Certainly serious gamblers are always looking for an edge, and no doubt the gambling world has more than its share of scummy people who have no scruples about gaining such an edge any way they can, including by cheating, but in my experience it’s also a world where honor and reputation are hugely important. Joe and the other cheaters in this movie are presented as largely sympathetic characters that we are intended to root for, but I’ve known many, many serious gamblers, from both sides of the counter, who would regard people like this with utter contempt.

As a friend who ran a gambling-related website once told me in an interview, “Successful gamblers…are the most honorable, trustworthy people. Generally, the rule of thumb is that the people who do this for a living, professionally, to make money, are people that you’d want at your dinner table. They just are. Even the guys in Vegas. Wonderful, wonderful people. Would help you, no questions asked. That typically is what these people are about.”

It’s the scumbags, the degenerates, the compulsives, the chronic losers—mostly not the professionals—who fit more the crooked gambler stereotype we see in movies.

Ironically, the people who put the fewest ethical restraints on how they seek to win money are typically the ones who are unable to win long term. Their weakness of moral character seems to be correlated with other personal weaknesses that preclude gambling successfully in a sustained way.

As for the more personal, relationship side of Yonkers Joe, I recall reading one or more reviews that criticized the performance of the son as being weak and over-the-top in its portrayal of mental illness. I didn’t react that way, though I wouldn’t go to the opposite extreme and say it was an excellent job of acting. I thought the son was OK. But I thought the acting in the movie on the whole was very good, especially Palminteri and Christine Lahti as the girlfriend.

It didn’t touch me on quite as deep a level as some other movies have, but I thought the relationship material hit more than it missed. I cared about these characters, and the movie enabled me to have some sense of the pain, the frustration, the guilt, the compassion, the joy, and the love they experienced. There’s growth and there’s a bit of a happy ending, but not so extreme as to be completely hokey.

In thinking about it, there are two lines, or two scenes, that stand out to me in the father-son relationship. In the first, Joe explains to his girlfriend that he has always regarded his having fathered a retarded son as God’s punishment for all his sins, not the least of which being making a living as a crook. He’s willing to accept this burden that has been placed upon him, and to do whatever is necessary to fulfill his responsibilities in regard to it (in contrast to the mother, who evidently skipped out almost immediately after the child was born and has not been heard from since), but he does so with a grim awareness that it is indeed a burden, a punishment.

In a later scene close to the end of the movie, Joe has softened greatly in his attitude toward his son, in large part due to his recognizing that it’s not him but his son who truly bears the burden. As he says in another conversation with his girlfriend, “It’s not about me this time. It’s about him. I’m telling you, he has caught every bad break a human being can catch, including having me for a father.”

For me, Yonkers Joe is a modest thumbs up.

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