Robert Celestino writes about what he knows. The recent film Yonkers Joe, written and directed by Celestino, is set in the same world in which he grew up, and features a protagonist that is the kind of old time gambler he dubs a “mechanic.” The eponymous Yonkers Joe is based on Celestino’s father. By staying close to home, Celestino has created an incredibly powerful film with a gripping plot and strong, believable characters.
Yonkers Joe follows a man, played by Chazz Palminteri, who makes his living as a “mechanic,” mastering the kind of sleight of hand that a magician might do to cheat at small stakes games and win big. Celestino, in a talk after a recent screening, observes that while magicians live in the spotlight, showing off their abilities, mechanics must remain behind the scenes, with the imperative that no one notices.
Joe and his friends are faced with impending irrelevance in the face of massive, high-security casinos that prevents them from practicing their trade. As Joe approaches some of the highest stakes of his life, his 20-year-old, Down syndrome-afflicted son, Joe Jr.—played fabulously by Tom Guiry—comes to live with him for the first time. With the help of his wife Janice (Christine Lahti), Joe must reconcile with his feelings about his son.
Celestino said that the most successful films are about not characters or plot but focus on relationships. A film cannot, however, be driven solely by the power of its relationships. In Yonkers Joe, he has expertly followed his own model, with nuanced interactions and feelings, especially between his three main characters.
The director is no stranger to high stakes gambling. For Mr. Vincent, Celestino’s second feature film, he was only able to raise a meager $10,000 for the budget. Deciding to risk it all, he and a friend drove to Atlantic City and went to the first casino they saw, sat down at that casino’s first roulette table, and bet the whole $10,000 on red. They got lucky, and Mr. Vincent was made.
Mr. Vincent’s critical acclaim paved the way for Yonkers Joe, which has been a long time in the making. Celestino began writing the screenplay more than 20 years ago, shortly after his father’s death. It took him years more to find a studio to produce the film. And when it finally came down to production, the glacial pace sped up to a sprint and the filming was completed in only a few weeks.
One of the most surprising and effective elements of the film is the titular character’s son, Joe Jr. It’s hard to believe that Tom Guiry does not actually have Down syndrome, as he acts it so masterfully. Celestino derived the idea for the character from a cousin with the disorder and spent time working with a New Jersey-based theater company composed of actors with Down syndrome—some of whom appeared in the film—to develop Joe Jr.’s personality.
The narrative of the making of Yonkers Joe is nearly as compelling as the plot of the film itself. Armed with a few tricks, Celestino created a surprising gem of a film.