Joe Rich is heading back to Chicago, his home town. His job was outsourced to a foreign country, he's three months behind on his house payments; needless to say, he's not happy. He knows however that his people are there for him in Chicago, so he can find a new lease on life. For Joe, that means looking up his Uncle Dom, who just happens to be an integral part of the Chicago mob.
This is the premise of a wonderfully entertaining film called The Return of Joe Rich, written and directed by Sam Auster. A native of Chicago, Auster has made a film about Italian gangsters that doesn't settle for the usual stereotypes. He also wisely decided that he didn't want this to be another Goodfellas or an episode of The Sopranos, as that would entail a big budget and most likely, lots of murders. It's just not that kind of film.
It is an inventive film about the mob for many reasons. One of the signatures of this movie are filmed interviews with ten former members of the Chicago mob. These "Chicago guys" - all between the ages of 75 and 88, spoke with Auster about their roles as gangsters in decades past. One of the themes that emerges in these interviews is that many of these individuals went into this business out of necessity, as they couldn't find a job. Times were tough back then, so they went where they could find work, even if that work wasn't pleasurable. "When people are in an economic depressed state, they help themselves," one of the guys states.
This is Joe Rich's situation as well. He goes back home to Chicago, "where you feel like you belong," and looks up his Uncle Dom. One other thing about Joe Rich -that's not his real name. His given name is Joseph Neiderman, but as he's starting a new life, he needs a new name. Joe Rich will be his mob name, a name that's cool. Joe is cool, from the way he dresses to the way he talks and even the way he moonwalks (this scene is hilarious!).
He is especially cool as portrayed by Sam Witwer, a native of Glenview, a northern suburb of Chicago. Witwer has a confidence and an impressive physical manner about him that's just right for this part. He's also got great comic timing and a sense of persistence - the guy is gonna get what he wants, whether that's a job with the outfit or the woman he loves. Witwer is front and center most of the film and he holds his own with some very experienced performers.
His Uncle Dom is portrayed by Armand Assante, a engaging actor who just oozes charisma in this role, as he has done so often in the past. He plays Uncle Dom with a graceful swagger - he's in charge, but he doesn't have to prove it to anyone. Unless of course, someone crosses him. Midway through the film, Uncle Dom is put in a situation where he no longer has the upper hand and he explodes with a violent, almost psychotic rage. Assante commands the screen during these scenes.
But for me, Assante's best scene (and one of the critical moments of the film) is when Joe visits him in a kitchen in a neighborhood restaurant in Elmwood Park, west of Chicago (any Chicago native knows about the Italian population of Elmwood Park) and tells Dom that he wants to be a part of "his business." Assante plays dumb, knowing full well what Joe is after, but Joe persists and Dom finally tells him the reality of the situation- this is a violent job and it's probably one you can't handle. We see Dom's first job with the outfit from decades ago and it's handled with a nice mixture of shock and humor all at once. We hear Dom quietly tell Joe what he'll have to do and it's in this brief moment that Assante shines, as he reminisces about the past.
I can't forget Talia Shire who plays Gloria Neiderman, Joe's mother. She portrays a bit of a dominating monster here (ok, more than a bit) and she's just wonderful. She's also got two or three terrific lines of dialogue I won't repeat here. It's so great to see Shire have so much fun with this role. (One final role worth noting is Chicagoan Tim Kazurinsky as one of Dom's no-so-important assistants. It's a small part, but Kazurinsky nails it.)
Auster directs beautifully, finding a lot of humor and irony in the script. There's a running joke about Gloria's meatballs, which are neatly used as a visual wipe in the editing of several scenes and at the end, Auster repeats this same rolling visual with a bagel. He loves his hometown, especially the scenes with food, whether at Gloria's house or in the old world Italian restaurants. Together with his director of photography Lance Catania, Auster gives us a variety of looks, from the earth tones of the wooded county preserves to the chilly hues of a deserted warehouse.
Auster's script is also impressive, loaded with the usual obscenities (usual for a mob film, that is) as well as some great insights into why these individuals act the way they do. They may perform some terrible deeds, but at the end of the day, they are driven by an unshakeable sense of honor. This was true for the "Chicago guys" forty and fifty years ago and it's true with the new wiseguys of today.
The Return of Joe Rich is a unique film that takes some chances. After all the films about Italian gangsters in America over the past forty years, isn't that a beautiful thing?
The Return of Joe Rich will be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival on Thursday, Oct. 13 at 2:30 PM.