by George Wolf
Seedy neighborhoods, sad sacks and shady characters populate God’s Pocket, an uneven drama that gets a big boost from its strong ensemble cast.
An adaptation of Peter Dexter’s first novel, the film is the big screen directorial debut for veteran actor John Slattery (Mad Men). He does show a confident, generous hand with his performers, but Slattery’s instincts for tone and storytelling aren’t quite as polished.
Dexter (The Paperboy, Deadwood) based the story partly on his own experience as a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, when he suffered a severe beating at the hands of a local gang angry over one of his pieces.
Set in a hard knock Philly neighborhood dubbed “God’s Pocket,” the film follows events set in motion by the death of Leon Hubbard (Caleb Landry Jones), a young slacker who is killed while working as a day laborer on a construction site.
Leon’s distraught mother Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) isn’t satisfied with the official version of the accident, and she pressures her husband Mickey Scarpato (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to call upon his semi-connected associates and dig for more details.
Right off, Jeanie’s suspicions seem desperate. Is there a reason she instantly thinks the death wasn’t accidental, or is it a convenient way to push her unsatisfying husband deeper into dangerous waters?
We never know, and ambiguous motivation is a problem throughout the film. These are interesting characters that beg for insightful backstory, but all we’re given is the neighborhood. Yes, we get that these are tough people who close ranks against outsiders, but this story needs more than vague cliches to truly resonate.
Slattery, who helped adapt the screenplay, also has trouble finding the appropriate tone to incorporate the black humor. It’s no easy feat, even for masters such as the Coens or Jim Jarmusch, and here we’re left unsure about feeling for these people, or laughing at them.
There’s nothing unsure about the cast. Hoffman, who reportedly wanted to move away from these “loser” roles before his tragic death, wears Mickey’s burdens like an old shirt you can’t bear to part with, only reinforcing how badly his talent will be missed.
Hendricks gives Jeanie a smoldering vulnerability, and enough mystery to justify the obsessive attention of Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), the boozing newspaper columnist whose life is awakened by her charms. Jenkins, customarily excellent, cements Shellburn as the differing reference point the film needs.
God’s Pocket ends up resembling a book with too many missing pages. There are some fine moments here, all searching for a foundation strong enough to keep them from drifting away.