Joe May might be the most pitiful, sad-sack mobster ever portrayed in the cinema, which makes for a wonderful story.
”The Last Rites of Joe May” stars Dennis Farina, usually known for playing mobsters and cops, and usually in his native city of Chicago; which is fine, since Farina was once a Chicago cop himself.
The movie opens with an old Joe May being released from a Chicago hospital, after spending seven weeks on his back due to a bad case of pneumonia. After he is released from the hospital, May returns to his shabby apartment – wearing a ridiculously outdated rust-colored leather jacket – and discovers he’s been evicted because the owner of the building thought he was dead. The new tenants are a 30-somethingish mother, Jenny, played by Jamie Anne Allman, and her 7-year-old daughter, Angelina, played by Meredith Droeger.
After spending one night in the apartment at the request of Jenny, May leaves and tries to assemble what remains of his life. To his dismay, May finds out his 1989 Cutlass has been impounded and sold. Then he goes to his local bank to cash in whatever he money has left: which turns out to be a measly $443.
”That’s all?” May barks at the bank teller.
After being assuring that $443 is all the cash left in his account, May asks for the money as follows: two hundreds, two fifties, five twenties, and 43 single dollar bills.
He puts the hundreds on the top and buries the 43 singles in the middle, folds them in half, and puts a rubber band around his roll; to give the impression to his mob pals that he’s still in the pink, which is far from the truth.
The rest of the movie is Joe May going downhill; doing one ridiculous thing after another to raise some cash – even paying a car service driver $10 to open the back door for him, so that his mob cronies in front of their hangout will think Joe May is still in action, and doing quite well, thank you.
If Joe May’s predicament wasn’t so sad, it would be extremely funny. But it’s not; it’s shake-your-head pathetically miserable.
The scene most indicative of how low May has fallen is when he is given, as a favor from a mob guy, Lenny, a 50-pound New Zealand hunk of lamb to sell, with 20% of the take going to Lenny after the sale is completed. In the dead of Chicago winter, Joe May lugs this lamb all over Chicago; trying to sell it to whoever will listen, but to no avail. Finally, May is cornered in an alley by a pit bull, which ignominiously bites May and takes possession of the lamb. When May informs Lenny the lamb is now dog food, Lenny says he still wants $200 from Joe May, since the lamb’s estimated worth was $1000.
There’s also a subplot concerning pigeons, and the young mother, Jenny, who takes pity on May and invites him to stay in her apartment. Unfortunately, Jenny has a detective boyfriend who beats her like a piñata, and because May is obviously still sick with some kind of oppressive hacking cough, May is powerless to do anything to help her.
May tries to visit his only son, Scotty, but is thrown out on his ear, after getting an earful from Scotty on how May mistreated May’s wife: Scotty’s mother.
I won’t spoil the ending, but the movie closes with Lenny, knocking wood on the table, while he utters the incredulous words, “Joe May.”
The director, Joe Maggio, who also wrote the screenplay, did a wonderful job exhibiting May as just another run-down-gangster, with no place to go, but down the tubes.
The truth is, Joe May would have been better off in jail.