‘Yonkers Joe’

Two minds are better than one.

Unless, of course, they both belong to the same filmmaker — who can’t quite decide what kind of movie he wants to make.

A mild case of this split-personality syndrome strikes "Yonkers Joe," which combines a gritty look at crooked gamblers with a potentially treacly tale about one of those gamblers — and his Down’s syndrome-afflicted son.

Think of it as a sort of "Rain Man" meets "The Grifters," with enough gritty "Grifters" to keep "Yonkers Joe" from stumbling into a swamp of sentimentality. (Although it gets perilously close at times.)

Like the Oscar-winning "Rain Man," this low-budget indie (from locally based producer Trent Othick) includes a climactic Las Vegas segment.

Rather than "Rain Man’s" glittery Caesars Palace foray, however, "Yonkers Joe" hangs out downtown, where the less luxurious, but equally colorful, surroundings better reflect the movie’s focus.

That’s because "Yonkers Joe’s" title character (Chazz Palminteri) isn’t a glitzy Strip kind of guy.

No, Joe’s an old-school hustler. The big score’s not his style.

A crafty card and dice "mechanic," he prefers workaday, bread-and-butter scams that enable him to live his life just the way he likes: with no strings attached.

Oh, he’s got a warm place in his heart — or what’s left of it — for his girlfriend, Janice (Christine Lahti), a rueful hometown gal who’s not averse to helping out when Joe’s running a scheme at an Atlantic City craps table.

But Joe’s got no room in his life for his son Joe Jr. (Tom Guiry), who was born with mosaic Down syndrome and has been institutionalized for years.

Now that Joe Jr.’s turning 21, however, he can’t stay where he is. And, because of his foul-mouthed, aggressive behavior, he’ll have to wait awhile to get into a state-run group home. Unless, of course, his father can pay to place him in an pricey private facility.

Until then, Yonkers Joe will have to spend time with his son, whether he likes it (and him) or not.

And Joe Sr. likes it not — because his pal Stanley (an avuncular Michael Lerner) has a potentially big deal cooking with a couple of Miami money guys.

They’re eager to bankroll a Vegas gambling jaunt — and Joe’s got an idea for a potentially lucrative scam that can’t miss at the craps tables. Which in turn will enable him to finance Joe Jr.’s care and keep the pesky kid from complicating his life any further.

As long as "Yonkers Joe" sticks to that shady, cynical, everybody’s-got-an-angle side of the street, the movie retains a seedy fascination.

Watching the wily (and less than legal) ways these wise guys use their smarts makes for compelling viewing, thanks to writer-director Robert Celestino’s tart, flavorful dialogue. To say nothing of the veteran performers Celestino rounds up to bring these con artists to life, including such familiar faces as "Law & Order’s" Linus Roache (as Joe’s wry Cajun sideman) and "The Sopranos’ " Arthur J. Nascarella (as one of the Miami money guys).

As Joe and his crew work to perfect their scams, they’re like fledgling magicians, diligently practicing the latest, and greatest, feats of legerdemain. And Celestino captures their machinations with unfussy authority.

Yet Celestino just can’t resist the impulse to pluck the audience’s collective heartstrings with the straight-outta-Hallmark story line detailing Yonkers Joe’s reluctant but growing attachment to his struggling son.

Palminteri undercuts the inherent mawkishness with gruff, grudging restraint, while Guiry ("The Black Donnellys") gives Joe Jr. a convincing, sometimes unsettling directness. (Yet, despite his best efforts, there were times I still couldn’t help thinking of "Tropic Thunder’s" hilarious, utterly un-PC dissection of portraying mentally challenged characters.)

The father-son story may be the throbbing heart of "Yonkers Joe," yet it’s Lahti’s touching portrayal that bridges the gap between the movie’s two sides. Janice may be an underwritten role, but Lahti breathes life into her sketchy character, creating a portrait of a world-weary woman who’s still ready to gamble on life — and love.

Come to think of it, that description applies to "Yonkers Joe" as a whole. It’s far from a natural, but somehow, some way, it makes its point.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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