Wednesday, February 20, 2013

From the Rental Vault: The Last Rites of Joe May (2011)

Aging man alienated from family and mostly alone encounters single mom. Man is initially reluctant to interact with mom and family but is won over by spunky adorable child. Mom and family face looming crisis. Can aging man's intervention help resolve the issue, allowing them a fresh start? Take that reliable formula, most recently spotlighted by Rob Reiner and Morgan Freeman in The Magic of Belle Isle, give it a rewrite by Chicago author Nelson Algren, and you will have 2011's The Last Rites of Joe May.

Aging hustler Joe May (Dennis Farina) returns from a seven-week stint in the hospital to find his landlord believed him dead and rented out his apartment. Left without a home or car and with just enough possessions to fit into an overnight bag, May seems prepared to spend his night on the street until the woman who now lives in the apartment (Jamie Ann Allman as Jenny Rapp) with her young daughter (Meredith Droeger as Angelina) offers to put him up. Eventually they strike up an arrangement whereby Joe stays and helps Jenny with the rent, which she has trouble covering.

Jenny has other troubles, such as an abusive boyfriend (Ian Barfield as Stanley Buczkowski) who's also a Chicago cop. So does Joe, who can't find any of his old compatriots willing to stay in the hustling game or any respect from the street-level crime bosses who run it. Although Joe and Angelina bond, Jenny's boyfriend and his violence loom over everything and Joe's own inability to keep up with 2011 stands out as much as his 30-year-old leather coat.

Droeger is very good as the street-wiser-than-she-should-be young Angelina, showing a child's tender-heartedness towards the adrift old man now in her life even while she builds her wall against what she sees Stan doing to her mother. Allman and Barfield play their rather familiar roles well also.

But the movie is Farina's to carry and he does so unbelievably well. A former Chicago cop, the actor spent a good portion of his life around a thousand Joe Mays, and he carries the combination of tattered dignity, bemusement at a hyper-accelerated world, sadness at the loss of bridges burned and what used to be and conviction that he was one break away from having it made as though these qualities were his own. Though usually a looming tough guy, here Farina manages to transform himself by turns so that he seems like an emptying husk or a servant begging for a favor. His role is just as clich├ęd as any of the others, but since he's given so much more time and screen to work with, the sterotype of the aging hustler becomes the brush with which he paints, rather than the usual paint-by number outline that a lesser actor would fill with factory-issued colors.

Joe Maggo wrote and directed Joe May, and his direction betters his script. Chicago's gllittering lakeshore is nowhere to be seen and its towers only appear briefly in the background. The gray wintry West Side is the backdrop for characters who themselves seem to lack most of spring and summer's sense of life. Those choices combine with his cast's skill to elevate Joe May into a movie that can give you something to think about long after it's over.

Farina had some low-level buzz for an Oscar nomination after Joe May screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, but it didn't amount to either a win or a nomination. Given that the nominees for that year included George Clooney starring once again as George Clooney in The Descendants and Brad Pitt's solid but perfectly ordinary turn in Moneyball, it looks like Academy voters are the ones who pulled a hustle.

No comments: