Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dennis Farina Tries on a New Suit in The Last Rites of Joe May

“There’s a great story about Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven,” said Dennis Farina, in NY recently to discuss his gritty, sensational aging-hustler drama The Last Rites of Joe May. “Clint Eastwood had that script for 15 years and he felt like he wasn’t ready to make it until he got much older, and he understood it better. I’m 68 now, so there’s a certain credibility that comes with just being 60 or 70 years old and your understanding of life.” In writer-director Joe Maggio’s latest film, Farina plays a completely different side of the tough guy we’ve seen previously — a title-role tour de force reminiscent of Mickey Rourke’s comeback in The Wrestler, this broken bull of a man with one last job left in him. On paper Joe May is an ordinary hustler, but the nuanced beauty of Farina’s performance — from his vulnerability to his slivers of humor — deepens the discomfort with each tired, regretful step he takes in Joe’s shoes. Perhaps it’s the hardened determination on the actor’s face, crafted over decades of playing seasoned detectives, gangsters and con men, that familiarizes Joe’s struggle to achieve greatness. In any case, it makes this work unlike anything you would normally expect from a character actor known for decades to step aside to let others shine. And if there’s anything jarring about that vulnerability, it’s seeing Farina as Joe, time and time again, looking for the greener pastures that he was never able to fully graze. “I think Joe is the eternal optimist,” Farina told Movieline. “Everything is a situation to him that he feels that he can overcome, and of course he can’t. He’s living in a time now where things have passed him by. In some of the niceties in life has gone away, which is a little sad. I always felt too if Joe had been successful he might have been one of the other characters that I’ve played in different movies. He might have been the guy in Snatch, but Joe never got over that hump.” We meet Joe May in the final stages of his career, checking out of a hospital after a seven-week battle with pneumonia. With his apartment sold to a single mother, and a failed relationship with his grown son, May has no one to turn to. “I liked the idea that when he came out of the hospital that no one was there waiting for him and he knew that,” Farina said, “and he just goes to this bar and finds out that everybody thought he was dead, which is kind of sad.” Despite it all, Joe continues his life as a hustler even though the world — and, more immediately, con boss Lenny (Gary Cole) — has already cast him aside. On screen it’s like seeing Farina try on the same suit, but with a much better, if unlikely, fit: One scene finds Farina desperately trying to sell lamb on a cold Chicago day, the weather painting the atmosphere desolate while Farina stands alone in the spotlight, where he should have been all along. As he pushes 70, the actor is finally able to distill the truths and tricks he’s acquired while shoring up films like Midnight Run, Snatch, Out of Sight, Saving Private Ryan, Get Shorty and scores of others (to say nothing of TV procedurals from Crime Story to Law & Order) for the majority of his career. It’s as though the performance is anchored in the experience of being underestimated, a key element that Farina plays up to. “It’s rare when you pick something up and you can just connect to it right away,” he said. “You read so many scripts, the good ones really pop out. It’s like a shining star in the sky. When I read it I knew it was different from anything else I have been involved in, and it came around at the right time in my life.” The layers exposed in The Last Rites of Joe May indicate a bright future — particularly in January, when Farina returns to TV in the Michael Mann/David Milch collaboration Luck. The HBO horsetrack drama co-stars Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, bringing to mind Joe May’s lesson that the best surprises (his father-like relationship with his single mother roommate, for example) occur when he isn’t looking for them. The same could be said for Farina’s new profile and deepened perspective of the performance world. “I would just say that you have to be a little Joe May about it,” he said, almost as much for himself as for younger actors and, well, all of us. “Don’t give up, be an eternal optimist, and you’re going to have to learn how to have patience. Above all, probably a sense of humor about everything.” The Last Rites of Joe May is available now on VOD and opens theatrically Friday in NY.

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