Dennis Farina arriving at the 47th Chicago International Film Festival.

“The Last Rites of Joe May,” starring Dennis Farina opened the 47th Chicago International Film Festival, with most stars walking the red carpet for the accolades they and the film justly deserve. “The Last Days of Joe May” chronicles the final days of an aging con man, clinging to the perennial belief that he’s just one scam away from the big score. Gary Cole plays Lenny, his fence, a man Joe asks to hook him up in jump-starting his life of petty crime, talking to Lenny about “the old days,” when he was best friends with Lenny’s dad. (Cole’s characteristic cool serves his role well.)

It Came from the ‘70s

Of significance to me is the concept that the film reflects a yearning on the part of audiences for a return to character-driven films like those excellent films of the seventies, something I articulated in an entire book (It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now). “Moneyball’s” movers and shakers (Brad Pitt, et. al.) recently echoed that thought (Sports Illustrated, Sept. 26, 2011).

Seventies films often depicted a man clinging to a code of conduct, but facing a world that had changed around him. The anti-hero arose then:  one man defying the establishment.  [Writer/Director Joe Maggio admits to being a fan of the films of Vittorio DeSica (“The Bicycle Thief,” “Two Women”) and of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” a Robert Mitchum movie.] The films of the seventies, when compared to CG-dominated fare of today, make you long for a return to telling a human story that touches the audience’s heart and doesn’t have to depend on an encroaching ice age, toys come to life, or asteroids destroying the earth (not to mention the “end of days” scenario of “2012.”)

Todd Brown of reviewed “The Last Rites of Joe May” this way: “I’m just happy that someone out there still wants to make movies like this while there are still stars like Farina to feature within them.  This man is a true American icon who deserves far more recognition than he gets, and this is the sort of role that fits him like a glove.” That opinion was shared by the enthusiastic Chicago audience Thursday night, who gave a round of applause to a controversial line in the film (Farino and Writer/Director Maggio debated it). Joe May calls the police station to give Jenny’s abusive policeman boyfriend, Stan Butchkowski (Steppenwolf Theater regular Ian Barford), this message after he puts Jenny in the hospital :  “If I ever see his ugly, greasy, wife-beating face, I’m gonna’ rip his balls right out of their sacs and stuff them down his c********** throat.” The audience openly cheered, much as they cheered Eastwood in 1971’s “Dirty Harry” (“Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya’, punk?”).

The Plot

As the story of Joe May opens, he is being released from the hospital after several weeks of treatment for pneumonia. He’s still not really a well man. Everyone thinks Joe’s dead. The apartment he lived in for 40 years has been rented to a young mother (Jamie Anne Allman) with a 7-year-old daughter; his belongings have been thrown out or given away, with the exception of his collection of vinyl opera records (Verdi, in particular); and his 1989 Cutlass has been sold for $75. (When Joe protests the sale of his car, the civil servant on duty says, “I’d say you got off easy. You had $250 of unpaid tickets and a $1,000 storage fee,” noting that the car was officially declared “abandoned” when Joe lingered in the hospital for weeks.)  Joe’s net worth is exactly $443.56. He is irrevocably estranged from his only child, a son (Scotty) who screams at him to get out of his house saying, “There’s nothing to talk about. We don’t even know each other.”

When the young mother (Jenny, well played by Jamie Anne Allman), who works as a nurse, sees Joe homeless in the streets outside his old apartment and sleeping on a city bus and a public bench, she asks him if he would like to rent his old room for $100 a week. He agrees and moves back into his old place, but in a platonic fashion. His relationship with Jenny in the film is that of a father figure, not a lover. Farina said, “I think, for him, not becoming involved with Jenny represented a noble gesture.” Farina described discussions with Writer/Director Joe Maggio where they agreed that Farina’s old-world code wouldn’t find it acceptable for him to sleep with the young woman while her 7-year-old daughter was under the same roof.

Joe May’s Pigeons

Joe’s relationship with Jenny’s daughter, young Angelina (Meredith Droeger) develops around the pigeons Joe houses on the roof (a throwback to Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront.”) The pigeons are symbolic of many things and their fate is pivotal in the movie’s plot. (Joe tells Angelina, “I’ll always come back,” much as the pigeons do.) The pigeons were also one of the sticking points in relocating the film from Maggio’s original New York setting to Chicago. Said Farina, “My biggest concern, believe it or not, it’s a small thing, but I wasn’t aware of how many pigeon coops were in Chicago, because pigeon coops are normally associated with the East coast.  That the only thing I’m concerned about…do we have pigeon coops?  Though it’s illegal to have pigeon coops in Chicago, there are, indeed, a lot of them.” As a resident of Chicago, Farino said, “It’s the best big city in the world.  Of course, I’m a little prejudiced, but I love it.”

Farina is the perfect choice to play Joe May.  This film—after a lengthy career as a reliable character actor—fits him like “Rocky” fit Sylvester Stallone. As Farina admitted in an interview, “I can tell you, I’m 68, yeah—there are a lot of things going on that I just don’t understand.  And it’s funny, I think maybe when you’re Joe May, your world just gets smaller and smaller and you keep gravitating to people who think like you, or are like you, because you don’t understand or can’t accept what else is going on in the world.” It’s the universal truth: “It’s hell to get old.” Or, as Bette Davis once put it, “Old age is not for sissies.” [Farino’s scenes with old friend Bill (Chelcie Ross) are great, especially one where he drops Angelina off with Bill at the assisted living facility and Bill gets the line, “Hurry up and say good-bye. Uncle Billy is freezing his nuts off.”]

Writer/Director Joe Maggio based Joe May’s character on his maternal grandfather, a short money hustler, and said, “Joe’s trouble isn’t that he fails to live up to his code; it’s that the world has changed to such a degree that, in obeying these rules, Joe is, in a sense, holding devalued currency.”

What code would that be?

Writer/Director Maggio:  “You always pay your debts. You never let anyone know when you’re down and out and no matter how bad things get, you keep your shoes shined, your pants pressed and your hair trimmed.  If you can’t afford to leave a tip, don’t go into the bar.  You wait your turn, with patience and fortitude, because better days will come, eventually.”  Joe’s character, in the film, tells his estranged son, who scoffs, “I just always felt there was something great waiting for me.”

At this point in his life, despite being down and out (“One day you’re on top of the world, and the next day you’re floating in the crapper.”) Joe is not ready to go gently into that good night. He plans to rage against the dying of the light, saying, “I still feel I have something to offer.” This is a universal theme that anyone over 50 can relate to.

After an altercation between Jenny and her violent boyfriend frightens Angelina, Joe reassures Angelina telling Angelina if her mother’s abusive cop boyfriend returns, “I’ve still got a few good moves left in me.” A scene on a city bus where Joe gets up to give his seat to a woman and is soon pushed into the senior seats by a young woman is telling.

The Verdict

Any number of Hollywood icons would have been good in this role in their day. Paul Newman comes to mind. Clint Eastwood a few roles back. But there are no actors working today who would have done the part more justice than Dennis Farina, and certainly none who could locate it as well in authentic Chicago neighborhoods in the dead of winter.

Farina’s convincing portrait of a man whose best friend Billy (excellently played by veteran character actor Chelcie Ross, co-star of “Hoosiers” with Gene Hackman) has hung it up and retired to an assisted living facility, is tinged with the sense of doom that Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman brought to their roles in “Midnight Cowboy.” Joe’s sense of being out-of-the-loop reminded me of the “Wall Street” sequel (“Money Never Sleeps”), when Michael Douglas’ character has lost touch with the present-day while in prison.  The sub-plot where Angelina is temporarily MIA reminded me of Jeff Bridges’ Oscar-winning role as Otis “Bad” Blake in 2009’s “Crazy Heart,” when he (temporarily) lost girlfriend Maggie Gyllenhaal’s child.

“The Last Rites of Joe May” opens on video-on-demand on October 28, 2011 and will open November 4, 2011 at Quad Cinema in New York City and at the Gene Siskel Film Center November 24, 2011. It’s a heart-warming, satisfying film experience with a message that resonates.