Let us consider the face of Dennis Farina. It's a great, grizzled face, the lines of age set deep, the eyes of the actor--who served 18 years as a Chicago cop--weary from the things he's seen. It's a face that you believe, that's puts a real lifetime of experience behind every character he plays, and the best moments in The Last Rites of Joe May are those that simply let us study that face; late in the film, he's just sitting on a bus, and the tragic music that's slathered over it is entirely unnecessary, because there's no way it can tell us as much as that mug does.
The Last Rites of Joe May comes via the auspices of Steppenwolf Films, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that it's an impressionistic, slice-of-life story that is more concerned with character moments than plot points. In its opening scenes, that's just fine. Farina plays the title character, just out of the hospital after a seven-week bout with pneumonia. He gets out to find that things have pretty much fallen apart in his absence--his landlord threw out his stuff and rented his apartment (he thought Joe was dead), his car was impounded and sold, and his hustling buddy Billy (the wonderful character actor Chelcie Ross) has up and moved into an assisted living facility.
Billy tries to get Joe to do the same, but he's not hearing it--"It's not for me, Billy." But his work prospects don't look bright; he goes to the boss's son (Gary Cole, all smug iciness), who's running the show now, and the best he can give him is a job that entails humping around a fifty-pound side of lamb. His prospects are looking pretty grim, in other words.
He does figure out a solution to his housing trouble: the single mother who has moved into the apartment, Jenny Rapp (Jamie Ann Allman), could use some help with the rent, so she lets him move in her daughter's bedroom. Joe establishes a bit of a rapport with the girl, who is played by a young actress named Meredith Droeger, and it's a good, simple performance. But then we meet Jenny's boyfriend Stan (Ian Barford), and you hear the plot's wheels turning--he's so immediately villainous, you want to give him a mustache to twirl. There's no nuance to the role, no indication of what Jenny would see in him, even in passing. He's just the bad guy, mean to Joe and abusive to Jenny. Uh-oh, I thought to myself. Are they doing a "Sling Blade" remake? And come to find out, they are.
So there's your problem, in a nutshell--the film wants to be all free and easy and Cassavetes-ian, but then they slam all this plot stuff into the third act, and it goes to hell. We have a reunion scene with his son this is patently phony--we've seen it a hundred times before. The business with the greeting card is dumb on dual levels: she'd never be stupid enough to do what she does, and we see the result of it from a mile away. And though the ending is well done, we've been waiting an hour for them to get there--which wouldn't matter if they weren't drawing it out and doing suspense-cuts as if it's incredibly ingenious. And then there's the mournful score, which all but smothers the action onscreen.
Farina has so rarely been used to his full potential that it's tempting to give Joe May a pass as an actor's showcase and leave it at that. But that's just not enough this time. All through the movie, Farina wears a light brown leather coat that's just a little too thin for the weather--but he keeps wearing it, because he looks so good in it. Near the end, a bartender compliments the coat, and offers him fifty bucks for it. The ways Farina tosses off his response ("Coat's not for sale") has more power and truth in it than all the rest off the picture. When he finds a film as good as that delivery, then he'll be in business.