Yonkers Joe confirms that writer-director Robert Celestin knows his way around a local cash-stakes game of craps. It also proves, unfortunately, that his scripting skills need substantial honing. Had it focused solely on mid-level card-shark scams and the old-school pros who ply their deceptive craft, Celestin’s film might have been a low-key charmer, since early scenes of Yonkers Joe (Chazz Palminteri) working his sleight of hand capture, with no-frills vitality, the mechanics of surreptitiously inserting new cards into a dealt deck and replacing standard dice with a weighted pair mid-game. Palminteri’s comfortableness embodying tri-state-area hoods gives these moments an added dimension of unfussy naturalism, the actor not overplaying his smooth-operator schtick but, rather, wearing calm confidence like a sharp new suit.
The film, however, isn’t content to simply spend time in the company of its workaday con men, instead feeling compelled to introduce a plot twist to create urgent motivation for Joe’s next-big-scam. And boy-howdy, is it a contrived, clichéd doozy. Joe, it turns out, has a mentally handicapped son, Joe Jr. (Tom Guiry), whom he’s left in a group home so as to avoid his taxing parental responsibilities. Due to unruly behavior Jr. winds up in the care of Joe, who fumes and pouts and berates his son—much to the chagrin of Joe’s loyal girlfriend Janice (Christine Lahti)—but, as such stories inevitably develop, soon comes to love, respect, and care for the kid. Or at least, that’s what ostensibly happens, since Celestin’s film wrong-headedly assumes it can successfully cast Joe’s exploitative, irresponsible third-act scheme to use Jr. in a daring Vegas sting as a benevolent attempt to make the young man feel “like part of something.” Still, the real deal-breaker is Guiry’s performance, full of the cloying moony grins, awkward mannerisms, and volatile-yet-sweet bathos that have sabotaged far more accomplished actors, and films.