God’s Pocket (2014)

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The compulsion to experience life the other side of the camera is clearly a strong one for actors. John Slattery of Mad Men fame (where he also tested his skills directing a few episodes) is the latest in a long line to try with his debut feature, God’s Pocket. Steeped in the grim aesthetics of a working class Philadelphia suburb, this otherwise benign drama occasionally breaks above the surface thanks to a strong cast who struggle free from barren characters.

The suburb in question is God’s Pocket where livings are only scraped, the law is a side-stepped inconvenience, and outsiders are not to be trusted. In this worn down neighbourhood, Slattery and Alex Metcalf’s screenplay, from Pete Dexter’s 1983 novel, introduces a number of half unfolded stories. At the centre are Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Jeanie Scarpato (Christina Hendricks), and the trouble and lies that spiral when their son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) suffers an ‘accident’ at work. An outsider himself, Mickey sells meat, not all of it legally acquired. He’s occasionally aided by his friend Arthur (John Turturro) who has problems of his own. Throw in jaded journalist Richard (Richard Jenkins) and there should be plenty to work with.

All these strands lie littered across the decaying urban environment, picked up in turn and tossed away when something shinier (or in this case seedier) comes along to draw attention. At various stages, parental grief, funeral fund raising efforts, loan sharks, infidelity and the wall of silence that rings the area all swing into focus, only to swing straight out again. By mixing in a number of characters, God’s Pocket is supposed to emerge as a key player in its own right. That this doesn’t happen is a result of a screenplay that fails to breathe life into any of the local denizens.

For all its worthy ambition to show the hidden corners of Philadelphia, the end result is little more than a hard-knock working class pastiche. Characters are fashioned out of staid tics alone. Leon postures in front of the mirror with a razor, later spewing lazy racial epithets, Mickey mostly just drinks, though not as much as Richard – an alcoholic journalist, who’d have thought it. Arthur is in hock and trying to gamble his way out while Peter Gerety’s bar owner McKenna gets to play the sounding board. Then there’s poor Jeanie, ignored both inside and out the film. The paint by numbers approach diminishes the reality of their situation.

Luckily for Slattery, the cast know how to work around the screenplay, finding space from nowhere. Seymour Hoffman proves once again what a loss he is to acting, managing to carry the weight of familial breakdown in gestures and sighs. Turturro is his usual ball of fast moving charisma and Hendricks and Jenkins spark up a jaded rapport that carries their scenes together. It’s not enough to save the film, but it does make it watchable. That’s about all it is though.

God’s Pocket was released on DVD & Blu-ray on 26th December. The Blu-ray disc also contains the theatrical trailer and deleted scenes.

Director: John Slattery
Writers: Peter Dexter (novel), Alex Metcalf (screenplay), 1 more credit »
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, Richard Jenkins
Runtime: 88
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★½☆☆

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