The Last Rites of Joe May - SideReel Review
It’s a sure sign that things are not going your way when people keep telling you they were convinced you were dead. That happens at least a half-dozen times to the titular character in Joe Maggio’s film The Last Rites of Joe May, which focuses on a man whose life is quickly going to hell in a handbasket. It’s a story that could easily have been depressing or maudlin, but director Maggio and leading man Dennis Farina give the film plenty of heart and an undertow of humor, crafting a minor but appealing tale of life on the mean streets of Chicago.
In The Last Rites of Joe May, Joe (Farina) is a small-time hood who has made a career out of fencing stolen merchandise, selling watches, radios, and the like for bigger fish in Chicago’s criminal underground. Joe has always believed a big score was just around the corner for him, but as he reaches the age when his friends are retiring, he’s no closer to that dream than when he started. Joe’s health isn’t what it once was, and after spending seven weeks in the hospital fighting pneumonia, he comes home to discover his landlord literally gave him up for dead -- his belongings were thrown away, his car was towed away by the police and sold at an auction for just $75, and his apartment has been rented to someone else. With less than $500 in the bank, Joe has nowhere to go, and so Jenny (Jamie Anne Allman), the single mom who took over his apartment, takes pity on him and strikes a deal -- she’ll let Joe rent a room from her for $100 a week. Despite his mixed feelings, Joe takes the offer, and he soon bonds with Jenny’s young daughter Angelina (Meredith Droeger), who never knew her dad and could use a father figure. While Joe seems more like a foul-mouthed grandpa or cranky uncle than a dad, he and Angelina strike up a close friendship, in part over their shared dislike of Jenny’s boyfriend Stanley (Ian Barford), a short-tempered cop. An ill-fated attempt to get back into street crime leaves Joe in debt to a penny-ante crime boss, and as his health takes a turn for the worse, he finds his only real sense of purpose comes from looking after Angelina, particularly after he discovers Stanley has been beating Jenny and has no intention of cleaning up his act.
Film fans have never really known Dennis Farina as a young man -- a former Chicago cop, he didn’t begin acting professionally until he was 37 years old -- but while he’s made a career out of playing seasoned tough guys on both sides of the law, he’s never played old age the way he does in The Last Rites of Joe May. Joe is a tough guy and nobody’s fool, but he’s also been brought down by time, illness, and bad luck, and Farina gives the character a wary frailty, both physical and emotional, that’s new to his repertoire.
Farina pulls it off with flying colors, and while his scenes with Meredith Droeger could have been played for easy sentimentality, his world-weary proclamations of “life sucks, kid” and similar cynical platitudes add a bittersweet humor that keeps the film from getting too sugary, and young Droeger plays off Farina very well indeed. Jamie Anne Allman has a tougher job making the character of Jenny work -- Allman seems a bit too strong and streetwise to fall for so obvious a scumbag as Stanley -- but she makes the weathered single mother sympathetic and she’s also a fine acting partner for Farina. And Gary Cole effectively plays against type in a small role as a low-level gangster who only grudgingly helps Joe, and sets in motion one of the film’s best comic set pieces as Joe tries to fence 50 pounds of lamb. As a screenwriter, Joe Maggio does good but not great work with The Last Rites of Joe May -- the title telegraphs the film’s final act right off the bat, and the story isn’t exactly full of surprises, following a fairly predictable narrative path that makes little room for twists and turns and that slows down noticeably at the halfway point. But Maggio’s ear for dialogue is good, he works well with his cast, and he and cinematographer Jay Silver share a superb eye, catching the gritty glory of Chicago’s West Side on film with rugged accuracy. The Last Rites of Joe May is well short of a masterpiece, but it gets more than enough right to be an entertaining and compelling character study, and it gives Dennis Farina a rare chance to show that he’s capable of carrying a film. Whatever the film’s flaws may be, the director’s belief in his star is well founded, and it makes this story of a small-time crook something worth seeing.