Set in the gentrifying West Town of Chicago, “The Last Rites of Joe May” poses a genre question: What would Dennis Farina be like in a cowboy hat? Playing a fading, low-level hood in writer-helmer Joe Maggio’s contemporary Midwest Western, Farina recalls Burt Lancaster in “Atlantic City,” but also Will Penny, as he plays Maggio’s titular wiseguy for all he’s worth. Exposure will be limited, but some savvy exploitation of Farina’s charisma could pay off at the B.O.
It might be the last roundup for Joe May (Farina). Wracked by fits of coughing and weak at the knees, Joe leaves a county hospital in Chicago, where he’s been recovering from pneumonia, with no one to meet him but a city bus: In a characteristically economical Maggio gesture, Joe gives up his seat for one woman, and another promptly gives him hers. The unhappy Joe has a glorified sense of his own importance on the streets of Chicago, but how alone he is will be the catalyst behind Joe’s late-inning epiphany.
Joe is not particularly likable — Farina characters are seldom very cuddly — but viewers have to sympathize: Arriving home, he finds his apartment rented out from under him during his seven-week hospital stay, his landlord having assumed he was dead (in a pretty wild storyline leap). In his place he finds Jenny (Jamie Anne Allman) and her daughter Angelina (the terrific Meredith Droeger). Jenny’s desperate enough to let Joe stay in the apartment in exchange for rent; he’s desperate enough to accept.
It’s not hard to see that Joe’s armor-plated cynicism will eventually crumble before Angelina’s bruised charms and turn him into something resembling a rounded human being; he warms toward Jenny, whose abusive relationship with a Chicago cop (Ian Barford) ignites his sense of righteousness. He also tries to re-establish himself among Chicago’s low-level criminal class, hustling whatever the reigning wiseguy (an apparently uncredited Gary Cole) will let him have. In one instance, his efforts to unload 50 pounds of New Zealand lamb turn into protracted slapstick.
The film is much better in its quieter moments between Farina and Allman, or between Farina and young Droeger, who demonstrate real chemistry. Nothing goes very right for Joe, who’s a sort of Rip Van Winkle of the Chicago underworld, except his burgeoning friendship with the girl, who shares his interest in birds; in a salute to films like “On the Waterfront,” Joe keeps pigeons on the rooftop, as a pastime and handy metaphor. He also listens to opera, the strains of Verdi indicating that even thought he may have spent much of his life on the lower rungs of the moral ladder, his heart has harbored wells of artistic yearning. Despite all this boilerplate gangster-with-a-heart-of-gold stuff, there’s an emotional payoff to “Joe May” that feels solid and right.
Tech credits are fine, with d.p. Jay Silver giving a nice sense of the Chicago that exists out of eyeshot of the Sears Tower or Inland Waterway.