“God’s Pocket” is one hodge-podge of a sometimes satisfying film. Directed by actor John Slattery with screenplay by Slattery and Alex Metcalf based on Peter Dexter’s novel, “God’s Pocket” is full of some terrific performances in a movie that not only doesn’t deserve them, but worse still, doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be.
God’s Pocket is the name of the poor, hard-drinking, hard-working class Philadelphia neighborhood where the film is set, and covers a few days in the life of its citizens. It’s the type of neighborhood that even if you have lived 30 of your 50 years there, you are still considered an “outsider.” Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is such a man. Mickey engages in the illegal beef trade, plays the ponies with friend and sometime partner, Arthur ‘Bird’ Capezio (John Turturro) and is a regular at McKenna’s (Peter Gerety) bar. He’s married to Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), who has a grown son, Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), who still lives at home. With journalist Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins) acting as narrator, the film begins with a funeral and then goes back three days before the service.
One particular morning Mickey gives Leon a ride to work—a Philadelphia construction site. Leon is all mouth and not much more. At one point during the work day, he seems to be completely wasted and starts hurling racial epithets at Old Lucy (Arthur French), an elderly black construction worker. When Old Lucy has taken as much abuse as he can handle, he hits Leon over the head and Leon drops dead. Not wanting to get Old Lucy in trouble, the workers all agree to tell the police that Leon fell in an unfortunate “accident.” Jeanie takes the news of Leon’s death badly and doesn’t believe it was an accident. She wants Mickey to use some of his contacts to find out what really happened. Mickey promises that he will, but first he has other, more pressing problems to solve. He and ‘Bird’ owe money to some bad people and are under the gun to come up with the money promptly…or else. To make matters worse, he doesn’t know how he’ll pay for the coffin Jeanie wants for Leon. While Mickey is trying to make quick money, Jeanie also contacts the newspaper about Leon’s accident. The paper assigns local columnist Richard Shelburn to the story. Writing about the city for 20 years, Shelburn is burned out, on an alcoholic downward spiral and, like Mickey, considered an outsider in the God’s Pocket neighborhood. He goes out to interview Jeanie and as soon as he lays eyes on her, is immediately gob smacked. Shelburn begins making overtures, which are not necessarily ignored.
As “God’s Pocket” unfolds, we are introduced to a whole host of characters—and never has that word so appropriately been applied. Chief among them is Joyce Van Patten’s Aunt Sophie. She’s a gun-toting florist and takes guff from no one. Van Patten plays her with both barrels, literally, and is terrific. Peter Gerety is spot-on as the neighborhood owner of a small bar. Then there is Eddie Marsan’s portrayal as funeral director, Smilin’ Jack Moran. He is sheer perfection as a smarmy salesman and businessman.
Christina Hendricks is great as the local beauty who’s gone nowhere and has pretty much given up on life. We wonder if she was really ever in love with Mickey. It’s hard to tell. Jon Turturro’s performance as the laid-back gambler is outstanding and one has the feeling that there might be more to him than meets the eye. Richard Jenkins is absolutely fantastic as the hard-drinking columnist who still has a way with words when he actually cares. Finally there is Philip Seymour Hoffman. In one of his last performances, he is hauntingly terrific. Overweight and downright messy, Hoffman’s portrayal of the unlucky Mickey is riveting.
Despite this outstanding cast and phenomenal acting, “God’s Pocket” never fulfills its potential. Director Slattery has directed some wonderful episodes of “Mad Men,” but he really stumbles with “God’s Pocket.” Sometimes it’s pure “Weekend at Bernie’s”…other times it’s pure melodrama. He never manages to meld the two together and the film suffers greatly because of that.
“God’s Pocket” is playing in limited release and is available On Demand. If you are a fan of terrific acting and still mourn the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman, then it is worth checking out.