God’s Pocket

Pour one out for P.S.H.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last two completed films, blends right into the saloon and butcher shop atmosphere of God’s Pocket, Mad Men star John Slattery’s directorial debut—a flavorful, flawed adaptation of Pete Dexter’s novel about a fictional hard-knocks neighborhood in Philadelphia.

As Mickey Scarpato, a man who makes his living selling stolen meat out of a refrigerated truck, Hoffman captures the resignation and animal wiles needed to get through a shadowy life in dire straits. Mickey is actually an outsider in God’s Pocket; he came to live there as the second husband of a longtime resident, Jeanie (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks). He’s the fulcrum of the action, though, in this slice-of-street-life story.

Hoffman lends his role, and the movie, all of his hardscrabble gravity. Mickey is one of Hoffman’s heavier, more slow-moving characters—like Art Howe in Moneyball but without the mental spark, or Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games without the seductive omniscience. His wariness both anchors the film and contrasts vividly with the nimbleness of John Turturro, who plays his nervous, Mob-connected boss.

Mickey’s obnoxious, lunatic stepson, Leon—especially as played by Caleb Landry Jones, a real live-wire find—provides the most outrageous counterpoint to Hoffman’s antihero. Early on, Leon gets killed on a construction site. The foreman tells the cops that his death was an accident, but Jeanie senses, rightly, that he’s covering up. She commands her husband to get to the bottom of the crime, and also to make sure that her lad gets the best funeral possible in God’s Pocket.

What ensues is a black comedy of errors involving a hotheaded Mafia higher-up, Sal Cappi (Domenick Lombardozzi), an epic bad bet, and a chiseling, pugnacious undertaker (Eddie Marsan). Director Slattery, working from a script he wrote with Alex Metcalf, has an appalled kind of fascination and affection for characters who express themselves with fists, gun, lead pipe or straight razor. The residents of God’s Pocket are quick to cross or even double-cross each other, but just as quick to move on. In their closed world, they can’t make lasting enemies—except for nonresidents like alcoholic newspaperman Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins), who not only has been wooing Jeanie but has also been writing columns some locals find insulting.

Unfortunately, Slattery doesn’t give Hendricks the scenes that could make us understand what’s at stake if she chooses Richard or sticks with Mickey. Her introductory scene is a familiar depiction of bored marital sex; it’s almost as flat and unbelievable as the scene of a pretty, eager-to-please Temple University grad trying to stimulate the sodden Richard. When Jeanie is with Richard you can’t tell whether she’s charmed, excited or merely flattered by celebrity. Hendricks is an intriguing camera subject, voluptuous and ravaged, but her character’s one driving force is her grief over her son, not any passion for the men who risk life and limb for her.

Mickey’s determination to please his wife is what drives the movie’s action. Because it fails to convey what this couple might share, God’s Pocket, despite its tiptop cast, becomes, at best, a piece of sardonic anthropology.

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