In The Last Rites Of Joe May, the great character actor Dennis Farina stars as a small-time hustler who’s lost everything in a quest for the big score. Emerging from the hospital after a six-week bout with pneumonia, Farina heads out into the blustery Chicago winter and squeezes onto a public bus. His close friends or family members are either estranged or dead. After slogging up to his dingy three-floor walk-up, he discovers it’s been rented out to another tenant. It gets worse: His belongings have been destroyed, his impounded car has been sold at auction, and he has no prospects to go along with the low three-figure amount that remains in his bank account. At least his beloved pigeons are still on the roof, because what would a stock movie character do without them?
Most of The Last Rites Of Joe May’s elements are ancient clichés, including its one-last-job plot and a redemption arc that involves an abused single mother (Jamie Anne Allman) and her young daughter (Meredith Droeger), who takes an instant liking to the irascible hero. Yet writer-director Joe Maggio invests an old story with real feeling, and Farina, best known as a colorful heavy in movies like Midnight Run and Get Shorty, takes advantage of a rare showcase for a career supporting player—rare outside a Tom McCarthy movie, anyway. Cloaked in a tan leather jacket that likely reeks of rainwater and desperation, Farina comes across much like Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross, playing an old-timer still trying to work all the angles, flopsweat on his brow.
How Farina does and doesn’t achieve redemption isn’t hard to predict, but The Last Rites Of Joe May succeeds in some of the smaller details and the soulful performances. Maggio shoots in pockets of North Side squalor that are rarely featured in movies about Chicago, and familiar faces like Chelcie Ross (as Farina’s retired buddy) and Gary Cole (as an old-school loan shark and black-marketer) make a strong impression. (When the latter gives Farina a 50 lb. cut of grass-fed lamb to turn around for a quick buck, the sight of the old man hauling it around the city like an oversized baby is suitably tragicomic.) But the film belongs to Farina, whose history as an actor given to tough-guy roles adds poignancy to a character whose last days are a lesson in humility and grace.