It's the rare film that offers a long-time character actor the opportunity to take center stage - to play a full-bodied lead role that allows him to use his entire palate and show just what he can do.
Think Richard Jenkins in The Visitor. Or J.K. Simmons in The Music Never Stopped. And now Dennis Farina in The Last Rites of Joe May.
Written and directed by Joe Maggio and shot in Chicago, this film - which debuted on VOD Oct. 28 and opens Nov. 4 in New York and Chicago - offers Farina the chance to demonstrate his range, beyond the wiseguy-bluster and world-weary authority that's been behind so many of his roles in films like Get Shorty and Out of Sight, as well as Crime Story and Law & Order.
He plays the title character - Joe May, a guy who has outlived his time as a small-time hustler on the fringes of Chicago's underworld. Indeed, the film begins with a raft of symbols of just how long Joe has overstayed his welcome, as he comes out of a hospital stay for pneumonia into a blustery winter setting. He has so few human connections in the world that his lengthy hospital stay has led the few people who do remember him to the conclusion that Joe must have kicked off.
"I thought you were dead," is the refrain he keeps hearing. In fact, Joe May may be dead -he just doesn't know it. Nor is he going to accept that verdict. If he's going out, he's going out on his own terms.
Still, it takes him a few days to figure out just how far out of his depth he is. Not that there aren't clues.
He returns to the apartment he's occupied for 40 years to find that the landlord has rented it out and thrown away his belongings. When he goes looking for his car, he's told that it was towed, impounded and then sold at auction. His best friend and scam partner has moved to an assisted-living facility where he is content to spend his days playing cards. And when Joe tracks down the small-time crime boss who usually throws him some work, the boss (Gary Cole) says, "Why don't you retire to Florida?"
Luckily for Joe, the single mother who now lives in Joe's old apartment, a nurse named Jenny (Jamie Allman), takes pity on him and lets him stay with her until he can get back on his feet. He gradually grows closer to her and her young daughter, Angelina (Meredith Droeger) - and takes a protective interest when he discovers that Jenny suffers physical abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, a cop named Stan (Ian Barford).
The ups and downs of Joe's post-hospital existence - and the increasingly limited prospects he faces - are of less interest than the depth Farina brings to this character. His still-alert eyes, his craggy-handsome face and his touching blend of bravura and vulnerability all contribute to a finely etched portrait of a man forced to put the best face on some hard choices - mostly to convince himself.
So even though Joe seems to own only one set of clothes (including a garish but thin leather jacket in an acidic shade of tan), he rarely presents himself to the public looking less than his best. Farina finds the pride that keeps this guy going, the crumbling sense of self-esteem that can be bolstered by carefully manicuring his mustache (or his nosehairs) with a small scissors, or putting a mirror-shine on his shoes.
It's a soulful and moving performance, one that makes the film worth watching. Maggio's story and plotting can be predictable, but he gets a real feel for the life of a small-timer, not just from Farina but from the others who populate Joe's strata of Chicago life. It's a cold world out there for guys like Joe - and Maggio and Farina let you feel that chill in The Last Rites of Joe May.
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