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Review: Good outweighs the bad in director John Slattery's debut, ‘God’s Pocket’

The film (and literary) world is littered with tough, working-class neighborhoods that are fiercely loyal to their own and exceptionally wary of outsiders. These are the kind of places where not only does everyone know your name, but also your secrets.

'God's Pocket' -slide0
IFC Films

Like many before it, the new film, God’s Pocket (based on the book by Peter Dexter), is a cautionary love letter to these notorious urban hamlets that fill major cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. So what makes God’s Pocket different or special?

First, and most noteworthy, is the cast, including the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who also produced) in one of his final roles. He is good in it, but the film is not Hoffman’s best, but it serves as an apt reminder of the immense talent Hollywood recently lost.

Set in what looks like the early 1980’s, Hoffman plays Mickey Scarpato, a down-on-his-luck schemer with low-level ties to the mob. He is well-liked around town, but not native to the neighborhood, a fact that the people of God’s Pocket constantly remind him of. When his arrogant, racist, jerk of a step-son Leon is killed in a construction 'accident,' nobody in the working-class neighborhood is sorry he is gone. Mickey tries to bury the bad news with the body, but when the boy's mother demands the truth, Mickey finds himself stuck in a struggle between a body he can't bury, a wife he can't please, and a debt he can't pay.

He is joined on screen by a solid collection of actors like John Turturro, Christina Hendricks, Richard Jenkins, and Eddie Marsan. As a character-driven, ensemble piece, they all do great work here, especially the always brilliant character actors Marsan and Jenkins. Some parts, especially, the side-story romance between Jenkins’ alcoholic writer and Hendricks’ heartbroken mother, are a little disjointed from the main action. And that is often the problem with a film like this; that is just one of the several threads that are likely more fleshed out in the novel, but hard to condense into a 90-minute film with so much else going on.

Next, God’s Pocket is an enjoyable mix of heartfelt drama and pitch black comedy. The film’s brief and scattered shots of violence are often preceded or followed by morbid bits of dark humor. But the tone shifts between drama, humor, romance, and violence are uneven and the overall editing is lacking. It seems the director is never really sure what he wants to have come across. Instead, the film is mishmash of all the above that works sometimes and sometimes does not.

The film marks the feature film directorial debut of actor John Slattery (he also co-wrote the screenplay), who most know as Roger Sterling on TV’s Mad Men. In fact, Slattery has directed five episodes of the highly acclaimed series in which he stars. Actor-turned-director debuts are often interesting and inspired, but more often than not, they show need for improvement as well – and God’s Pocket is no exception. It may not be fully-realized or seamlessly constructed, but the potential is there and that is exciting enough for now.

One element Slattery (with cinematographer Lance Acord) does nail is the look of the film - a cold, washed-out cityscape and the dim lights of hole-in-the-wall bars and lived-in homes. The neighborhood, and therefore much of the film itself, has a dull, isolated look and feel to it. In a very effective touch, the two brief scenes that take place outside of God’s Pocket are almost like a different film, brighter and more serene. By choice or circumstance, the forlorn people of God Pocket’s are life-long residents – born, marry, have kids, and die there – and the look and atmosphere of the film captures that perfectly.

God’s Pocket may have been a little too ambitious for Slattery to nail down in his directorial debut. But his desire to take on such a grand story and the parts he does get right, gives audiences something to look forward to in future projects from this latest actor-turned-director. And with Mad Men set to end next year, hopefully that is sooner than later.

* * * ½ out of 5 stars

God’s Pocket opens Friday, May 16 at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center playing nightly at 7:30 p.m. (except at 5:30 on Thursday, May 22).

So come out to the Zeitgeist and take advantage of this unique film-going experience and all the Zeitgeist Arts Center has to offer. And by doing so, help support one the premier alternative arts center in the South. You can visit the Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center’s website here.


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