Part low-rent “Ocean’s Eleven,” part two-bit “Rain Man,” part bigscreen “After School Special,” helmer-scribe Robert Celestinos’ sophomore feature, “Yonkers Joe,” follows the fortunes of a crooked gambler suddenly saddled with his grown son, who has Down syndrome. It falls to star (and exec producer) Chazz Palminteri, ably abetted by Christine Lahti as his gambling lady g.f., to reconcile pic’s obsessively detailed concentration on illegal gaming procedures with its extended father-son melodramatics. Opening in limited release Jan. 9, competent but uninspired pic may coast briefly on post-yuletide sentimentality.
Joe (Palminteri) ranks as something of an artist in his chosen craft; his manual dexterity at palming cards and switching dice makes him the quasi-legendary “mechanic” within his gang of cons as they invite unsuspecting marks into poker games, invade the craps table at a local union picnic, or descend upon Atlantic City and Vegas gambling parlors. Affable Teddy (Linus Roach) generally serves as the designated winner, while worried Stanley (Michael Lerner) manufactures doctored cards and dice for the trade.
Hard work and diversification (Joe also plays the ponies and bets on sports) have earned Joe a comfortable income and a house in the suburbs, though, as an inveterate schemer, he dreams of ways to defeat the high-tech, cheat-spotting big casinos.
Into this sweet setup comes Joe Jr. (Tom Guiry), Joe’s relatively high-functioning, 20-year-old son, whose anger and aggression have gotten him kicked out of an institution and onto Joe’s reluctant lap.
Pic tiptoes around the kid’s disability, and Guiry’s Joe Jr. is nicely gauged to elicit gasps, laughs, sympathy and respect in equal measure. Though writer-director Celestino seems alive to the comic possibilities of Joe Jr.’s mind-blowing candor intruding on a milieu that depends on secrets and lies, the humor functions less as outright comedy and more as a cute tension-breaker as pic single-mindedly nudges Joe Sr. toward acceptance and affection. No problems, including outbursts of resentment over years of parental neglect, loom so large that they cannot immediately be resolved by hugs and professions of support.
Unlike Harvey Keitel’s gambling deadbeat dad in “My Sexiest Year,” Palminteri’s Joe boasts little charm or colorful personality. His slow conversion to doting daddyhood, though basically convincing, fails to stir up much empathy. Celestino does a journeyman job interweaving gambling-scam suspense with familial unpredictability; results seem conventional at best, opportunistic at worst.
Tech credits are pro.