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And it wasn’t no way to carry on

It wasn’t no way to live

But he could put up with it for a little while

He was workin’ on something big.

“Something Big” — Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

At some point or another, everybody has felt that they were on the cusp of “making it big.” Some people are born with that feeling, the notion that the universe has something greater in store for them. Others come into that notion more organically: maybe you hear about a “can’t fail” money-making proposal…maybe you’ve got a line on a big con…maybe you’ve been promised a position of power and authority in exchange for unfailingly loyal service…maybe you’ve got the winning lottery ticket in your pocket, even though the numbers haven’t been drawn yet…regardless of the situation, we’ve all felt, at some point, like we were just one move away from winning the game. We may feel stuck right now but when that big break comes through…buddy, the sky’s the limit!

But what happens when you keep working on that “big break” your whole life and it never materializes? While we might all feel like we’re destined for more than Point A-to-Point B drudgery, the truth is probably a little less optimistic. Getting that “something big” might take self-confidence, sure, but it also takes hard work, dedication, drive, sacrifice, an innate ability to keep getting up after getting knocked down and more than a little luck. No one is guaranteed a big, important life, although those born into royalty and family dynasties might take issue with that. Sometimes, we can work on “something big” our whole lives and still come up empty. Writer/director Joe Maggio’s understated but powerful drama, The Last Rites of Joe May (2011), takes a long, hard look at just such a lost soul, a man who has spent so long trying to “make it” that he’s forgotten how to actually live.

Joe May (Dennis Farina), an aging small-time con man, has had better days: he’s just been released from the hospital after spending the past seven weeks recuperating from pneumonia, his only friend, Billy (Chelcie Ross), has just been moved to an assisted living facility and his only other “friend,” the neighborhood bartender (Matt DeCaro), lies about even knowing Joe was sick. As we see, Joe is pretty much all alone in this world but he seems to like it that way: he’s a tough, sardonic old bastard with a thick skin and a hair-trigger bullshit detector. As long as he still has a place to call home and another scam, Joe can make anything work. Life, however, has other plans for Joe: when he returns home to his apartment, Joe discovers that his sleazy landlord has rented his place out to a single-mother, Jenny (Jamie Anne Allman) and her precocious young daughter, Angelina (Meredith Droeger). He’s also thrown out all of Joe’s belongings, which leaves the guy homeless and with nothing to his name but the clothes on his back. As Joe tells Angelina on his way out the door, “Life sucks.” And it certainly can, although life still has a lot more in store for Joe.

After seeing Joe aimlessly riding the city bus, Jenny takes pity on him and invites him to spend the night: in a cruel twist of fate, Joe is now a guest in the home that he’s lived in for 40 years. Refusing any further “charity,” Joe hits the road but ends up right back on the same bus bench where Jenny finds him after another long day of work. She comes up with a solution: Joe can stay with her and Angelina if he pays them $100/week. Joe gets a place to stay, Jenny gets some extra money and Angelina gets a much-needed father figure…it’s a win/win/win situation. In no time, grumpy old Joe has become the most fascinating person in the world to young Angelina and, despite his constant exclamations that he hates kids, Joe really seems to be warming to the little rugrat and her mom. Jenny is a perpetual survivor, just like Joe, but she’s also saddled with an abusive, hateful, obnoxious shit of a boyfriend named Stan (Ian Barford). Stan just happens to be a cop, which gives him an unbearable God-complex to go with his flying fists. When Joe comes home drunk one night, Stan berates and slaps him, getting his kicks from bullying a helpless man who’s about 20 years his senior. Like Joe, Jenny seems to be trapped in a drab nightmare but, at the very least, she’s “working on something.” Aren’t we all?

Turns out Joe is “working on something,” too: he wants to get back into the short-money racket and goes to see his old friend, Lenny (Gary Cole), to see if the “organization” has anything for him. Turns out that Joe isn’t just a relic among the regular folk in the world: he’s also a relic among his own brotherhood of mobsters, con men and shadowy underworld figures. Joe is a throwback to an older, simpler time and Lenny decides to throw him a bone (literally) by having him pick up some “merchandise” from one of Lenny’s connections. If Joe can sell the product and get Lenny his cut, Lenny will get him something bigger next time…and on and on until Joe is “officially” back in the business. He’s only ever wanted to be a “big” guy and if it doesn’t happen until he’s in the final act of his life, who’s Joe to complain? When the “product” doesn’t end up being quite what Joe expected, however, in a scene that manages to be both heartbreaking and uproariously funny, Joe is right back at square one. At this point, everything looks stacked against him: no one seems to respect Joe, his health is getting worse, Stan is becoming more violent towards Jenny and a reunion with Joe’s estranged son, Scotty (Brian Boland), goes as poorly as possible. Don’t count ol’ Joe out just yet, however: even the oldest, mangiest hound can still bite, if backed into a corner, and Joe doesn’t plan to leave without sinking his teeth into something big.

In many ways, The Last Rites of Joe May is as much of an old-fashioned throwback as its titular subject. It purposefully seems to echo those gritty, small-scale, character-driven dramas from the ’70s and ’80s that featured actors like Walter Matthau, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson. These were films where quietly strong, beaten-down loners were finally able to strike back at the world around them, trying desperately to carve out a place for themselves, usually resulting in bloodshed and heartbreak. While The Last Rites of Joe May isn’t quite as gritty as those films, it certainly comes from a similar mindset, which goes hand-in-hand with the film’s themes of being slightly out-of-step with the times.

While so much of The Last Rites of Joe May will seem familiar for different reasons, the film is actually pretty good at subverting expectations, setting up situations that seem “old hat” but having them pay off in unexpected ways. The film’s central male-female relationship seems to be building into a stereotypical “May-December” romance but takes a sharp turn down a different road. The mafia subplot about “getting back into the game” seems to be a tired bid for redemption but ends up bearing more bitter fruit. We’ve seen lots of films where a “white knight” tries to protect a “damsel in distress” from an abusive relationship but The Last Rites of Joe May is more interested in the pathology behind the abuse than any kind of ass-kicking revenge. Joe isn’t some kind of superhuman thug: he’s an old man who’s just getting over pneumonia, has a terrible cough and has been a survivor for almost 70 years. The climax could have played out in many different ways but, to its great credit, it feels authentic: there’s a bit of wish-fulfillment here but it’s tempered by some surprisingly bittersweet, but not cloying, emotional heft.

In many ways, the key to the film’s success is Dennis Farina. Over the course of some 33 years and 70-odd roles, Farina proved himself to be not only one of the most iconic actors of his generation but one of the best. While my favorite role of his will always be Mike Torello in Crime Story (1986-1988), I never actually saw Farina in anything where he wasn’t thoroughly impressive. Farina, like Newman and Matthau, was an actor’s actor, someone who submerged himself so completely in each role that no trace of the man behind the mask could be seen. Thanks to Farina’s innate skill, Joe May doesn’t come across as pathetic: we feel his pain and want him to succeed but we also see the steel and fortitude that enabled him to survive as long as he did. Farina may be playing an aged tough guy but he plays like him like a real person, not a caricature. This, in some ways, will always be Farina’s greatest legacy: his death in 2013 left a void that will, most likely, never be filled.

While the film belongs completely and totally to Farina, a more than capable supporting cast helps keep the material elevated, even during the rare moment where things become to soggy and predictable. Jamie Ann Allman is the perfect synthesis of vulnerable and tough as nails, while Meredith Droeger manages to prevent Angelina from straying into “ultra-precious poppet” territory, particularly as her friendship with Joe grows. Ian Barford is suitably despicable as the abusive Stan, one of those characters who seems to solely exist as a lightning rod for the audience’s negativity. Character-actor Gary Cole has a nice, if too-short, appearance as Lenny and manages to make the character impressively three-dimensional using as few brushstrokes as possible. Again, this was a character that could have been strictly “Screenwriting 101” but Lenny gets several nice moments, including a subtly powerful closing moment that manages to tie everything together.

While I’m not familiar with most of writer-director Joe Maggio’s filmography, I have seen the film that preceded The Last Rites of Joe May, Bitter Feast (2010), and found it to be a quite interesting, if ultimately disappointing, take on the torture-porn subgenre. Despite the film’s flaws, Bitter Feast had an exceptionally sharp script, which is something it shares with his most recent film. Maggio is good at setting a quiet, reserved mood, accented by moments of explosive violence, and The last Rites of Joe May utilizes this loud/quiet aesthetic much better than Bitter Feast did. While Maggio is not quite “there” yet, he’s definitely a filmmaker to keep your eyes on.

Ultimately, The Last Rites of Joe May ends up being a fairly old-fashioned movie about a pretty old-fashioned kind of guy. Joe May might be out of step with the modern-era and as “unhip” as they come but he’s also a principled, pragmatic, self-assured and undefeatable type of guy. Regardless of what the world throws at him, Joe pulls up his collar, digs his heels in and keeps fighting the good fight. Joe may have spent his whole life looking for his “big break” but the irony may be that he’d already found it: living your own life, under your own terms, for better or worse, may be the biggest break of them all. Joe might have been looking for something big but I’m willing to wager that you’ll remember The Last Rites of Joe May for all the little things.