gods-pocketCuriouser and curiouser.

Oddities abound in God’s Pocket, some deliberate, others not so much. This quirky first feature from director John Slattery (Rodger Sterling of AMC’s Mad Men) suffers from a series of questionable decisions. The result is a disappointing, small movie with a big-time cast. Large themes are reduced to petty actions, and elements of the mise-en-scène are so discordant that the setting, the action, the characters, and the soundtrack seem stitched together from very different films.

The first curiousity here is the source material. God’s Pocket was the debut novel from Pete Dexter, who would go on to win a National Book Award for fiction. At the time of publication, 1983, he was a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Nationally, he was known as the guy who was with boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb when the two were beaten up in a bar fight in a working class Philly neighborhood. Dexter used those events as the basis for the plot of his novel, a minor work with some colorful characters and sharp dialogue.

Why anyone would elect to turn this novel into a film 30 years later is unknown. Why those choosing to do so would not have Dexter himself write the screenplay is an even greater mystery. Dexter has written scripts for movie versions of other of his novels including The Paperboy as well as original work such as Mulholland Falls. The screenplay for God’s Pocket, credited to Slattery and Alex Metcalf, has Dexter’s language, but not his cadence. The result is an uneven film with an unsettled tempo.

The story focuses on a neighborhood known as God’s Pocket, an all-white working class neighborhood with tough, crappy little bars where the locals come after work to drink, and those without jobs start earlier in the day. Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and almost every other industrial city in the northeast and mid-west United States had such neighborhoods in the 1970’s and 80’s before desegregation and gentrification wiped them away. Yonkers, which substitutes for Philadelphia here, must have missed the urban renewal fad as the rundown look is authentic.

Local boy Leon works at a construction site as a day laborer, but most of his energy goes into waving a knife and antagonizing an older African American co-worker. Leon soon finds himself permanently employed on the graveyard shift. The rest of the work crew swears it was an accident, and Leon’s stepfather (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a small-time hustler, has to come up with the money to give Leon a proper send off. When the city newspaper screws up the article on Leon’s death, the editor dispatches a columnist to appease the local citizenry. As the day of the funeral approaches, the desperation of all parties increases.

The role of the columnist is reduced to something worse than the sterotype of the alcoholic cynic. The newspaperman, Richard Shellburn, is a hack who is trading off his reputation for drinks and female company even as he recycles old columns and routinely calls in sick after his regular benders. The usually reliable Richard Jenkins turns in an awful performance as Shellburn. He plays a caricature, not a character. The same actor who was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor for The Visitor has nothing to be proud of in this work.

Leon’s mother is played by Christina Hendricks, director Slattery’s co-star on Mad Men.  Hendricks tries to pull it off, but the miscasting is obvious from the first scene, which has Hoffman humping her wildly in the morning. It doesn’t get much better for Hendricks as she has Jenkins humping her wildly by the end of the movie. In between, Hendricks cries – a lot. Even with puffy eyes and runny nose, she has too much of a Glamour Shots look to convince anyone that she’s a neighborhood girl from this kind of neighborhood.

On the other hand, Hoffman looks like hell, but is amazing nonetheless. With his passing, we cannot objectively judge the performances we see posthumously.  Still, he was a phenomenal talent, and he shows that here. We may never know why he chose to do this film, but whatever the reason, he delivers a striking peformance. The look on his face and his slumping body language as his plans fall apart convey more feeling than any line of dialogue could. John Turturro is his partner in crime. The scenes between these two actors are sublime.

It is unclear from God’s Pocket whether Slattery has a viable future as a film director. Five turns directing episodes of Mad Men, when cast, script, and score decisions were outside his authorities, was clearly insufficient preparation. In addition to the casting and screenplay shortcomings detailed above, the music in the movie is so bad, so distracting and so inappropriate to the time, setting, and action that you swear the sound must be bleeding through the walls of an adjacent theater.

God’s Pocket is the type of movie that would normally rate no more than two stars. Hoffman’s peformance in what will be one of his last appearances changes that. There are so few opportunities left to see him in original roles that this one should not be missed. The last curiousityof this movie is why the “In Memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman” graphic does not come onto the screen until the end of the credits when almost no one is left in the theater.  That tribute should be there with Hoffman in the last image of the film.

Three stars.

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