In the opening scene of Robert Celestino's Yonkers Joe, professional gambling cheat Chazz Palminteri is at the track, meeting with Michael Lerner, his trusted confederate and chief suppler of bogus cards and dice. They're in the middle of chewing over Palminteri's lifelong dream to take down one of the big Atlantic City casinos, when Lerner checks his watch and says he has to split. His daughter is in town.
Yonkers Joe is largely concerned with the delicate balance between a crook's business life and his personal life—a balance the movie itself has trouble managing effectively. Half of Yonkers Joe follows Palminteri as he schleps his formidable mechanic skills from backroom card games to back-alley crapshoots, all while calculating how he can use what he has at his disposal to pull off one of the slickest cons of all time. The other half follows Palminteri's grown son Tom Guiry, a foul-mouthed thug with Down Syndrome. Whenever Yonkers Joe sticks with the small-timers and their long-shot dice-switching scheme, it's a jazzy, tense depiction of life on the grift. But whenever it returns to the relationship between Palminteri and the ever-exasperating Guiry, the movie is as maudlin as a Hallmark Channel Original. (The saccharine side of Yonkers Joe reaches its nadir in a father-son heart-to-heart that ends with Guiry shouting, "I have three chromosomes and you have two! No one will ever love me!")
The capering in Yonkers Joe is smart enough to excuse most of the tear-jerking. The movie delves into the seedier side of the gambling business, focusing on the conflict between the tough guys who police the casinos and the sharpies who try to outfox them. And it's an involving (though unsurprising) character study about a man who spends hours perfecting his sleight of hand, yet is far less cautious when it comes to his ambitions. Palminteri won't back sure things; he prefers the odds a little longer. Similarly, Celestino steers clear of the can't-miss pulp thriller that Yonkers Joe could've been, and goes for broke by giving it big dollop of schmaltz. His horse doesn't come in, but it runs a respectable race.