Dennis Farina's washed-up hustler of "The Last Rites of Joe May" is designed in the classic tough-guy mold, but the veteran character actor's performance also serves to disassemble it. Freed from a Chicago hospital after a bout with pneumonia, the frail and aging Joe May heads straight to his neighborhood bar. His confident swagger, however, belies the haunted person within. Once a high-rolling money man, Joe has become a ghost of his former self, destined to wander around his old haunts in search of a purpose that probably never existed in the first place.
Joe Maggio ("Paper Covers Rock," "Bitter Feast") writes and directs this simple and affecting drama with an assured focus on Farina's archetypical lost soul. Despite numerous formulaic developments, Maggio makes the story work by beginning where many would end: Joe's already at his wits' end. Virtually everyone in his community says they thought he was dead and Farina's downtrodden expression makes it clear that Joe has started to share their belief.
After heading back to his cluttered apartment, Joe finds that the place has been rented to single mother Jenny (Jenny Rapp) and her young daughter Angelina (Meredith Droeger). After an awkward introduction, Jenny allows Joe to crash at his old place until he can find a new home. Dividing his time between caring for pigeons on the roof and bugging his old connections to loan him some cash, Joe gradually becomes more involved in his new roommates' lives, defending Jenny from her crude, power-hungry boyfriend and keeping an eye on her impressionable daughter.
Despite Joe's inability to hold down a job or avoid burying his sorrows in alcoholism, Maggio makes it clear that his subject harbors a legitimate desire to clean up his act -- something that underlines the pervasive sadness of his deteriorating state. Maggio puts the conclusion of Joe's downhill journey in focus, and lets Farina's commitment to the role take the lead.
That doesn't make the movie particularly fresh, but Maggio (upping the production standards from his last few efforts) keeps a steady handle on the formula. As Joe becomes invested in Jenny's troubles even more than his own, he becomes a legitimate figure of empathy. Although the story is slight and filled with predictable ingredients (Joe even has an estranged son, as if he weren't pathetic enough), it does right by them. A final showdown between Joe and Jenny's male oppressor contains a masterful tension, made possible by Joe's evolution into a tragic hero with nothing to lose. "The Last Rites of Joe May" luxuriates in clichés, but also reflects an understanding of how they can actually work.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Too slight for widespread acclaim, "Joe May" will probably find a home with a small distributor. Its best hopes for attention in limited release will depend on the level of acclaim for Farina's dedicated performance.
criticWIRE grade: B