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The impressive God's Pocket screened at festivals, got a Spring release and is now on disc -- that's a fast playoff for a picture so highly anticipated, at least by fans of TV's Mad Men. Director John Slattery hired actress Christina Hendricks, boosting the wanna- see quotient fairly high. In the meantime star Philip Seymour Hoffman came to an unexpected and much-mourned end, which made this adaptation of a novel by Peter Dexter all that more notable.
The reviews weren't great, with critics from The New Yorker on down trying to find positive ways to explain why the movie didn't work for them. It was compared unfavorably to films by the Coens, and even Martin Scorsese. The consensus said that God's Pocket is a black comedy with no laughs, populated by characters we don't like. I therefore wasn't expecting much.
The show has been repeatedly tagged as a dark comedy. I didn't take God's Pocket as a comedy at all, but an undiluted tragedy with a hardboiled attitude. I think it will appeal to fans of old-fashioned pulp fiction stories, the kind where less-than-charismatic losers do terrible things to each other and don't care enough to be regretful about it. Like an older noir picture, the story events overwhelm the characters. Fate doesn't mandate their fortunes, but the character chemistry puts in motion a cruel chain of events that might as well be a form of Fate. As in any worthwhile Loser Noir, the luckless sap played by Philip Seymour Hoffman thinks he has things under control, when he really hasn't got a prayer.
The critics are right in that there is something a little 'off 'about the movie ... its parts aren't as well connected as they ought to be. But the fun is in watching the miserable citizens of God's Pocket, Philadelphia, sort out their sordid problems. This is a fine actor's movie.
Drug-addled, rattlesnake-mean day-laborer punk Leon Hubbard (Caleb Landry Jones) goes too far when he threatens to kill a black worker at his construction job. He winds up dead. The barflies and riffraff in the neighborhood called God's Pocket commiserate with Hubbard's stepfather Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but in reality are really happy that the creep Leon is on ice. A small-time crook, Mickey owns a refrigerated meat truck but mostly uses it to hijack beef with his partner Bird Capezio (John Turturro), who in turn hides his activities behind the florist shop owned by his wife Sophie (Joyce Van Patten). The two men gamble on horses, and Mickey foolishly loses the funeral money collected by the sympathetic bartender McKenna (Peter Gerety).
Mickey's woes only get worse. His wife Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) is a great beauty but not very bright; she clings to the illusion that her dead son Leon was a saint, and insists on an expensive funeral. Mickey must face the local mortician Smilin' Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan), who pretends to be a pal but will go to any length to collect his fee. The despondent Jeannie intuits that something was wrong with Leon's death. She insists that it be investigated. The police promise to dig deeper and Bird taps some mob muscle to get the facts. The worst news for Mickey is that newspaper columnist Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins) is assigned to the same story. The alcoholic Shellburn takes one look at the sexy Jeanie and decides to put everything he's got into seducing her. He'll even pretend to care about what happened to Leon.
Maybe the plotline isn't the best ever written but God's Pocket made me feel like I was thumbing my way through a choice pulp novel by someone like Jim Thompson or David Goodis. Everybody in this awful neighborhood seems to harbor a grudge. Leon is an outright psycho. Mickey and Bird pull down scores that could ruin their lives, yet consider themselves able to outsmart the system. Columnist Richard Shellburn is a hair's breadth from losing his job and doesn't seem to care. He's the literary conscience of God's Pocket, and is obsessed with its sordid pride -- no matter how miserable the residents may be, they still discriminate against anyone not born there. The real bruisers in the 'hood can take on an average mob thug any day, without raising a sweat.
Mickey's apparently a double loser for having been born elsewhere. Unable to satisfy his wife and never earning a word of approval, he seems to have resigned himself to eventually losing her. Most of the misery that occurs is due to Mickey's pitiful attempts to carry out his wife's wishes.
The film's characters aren't only unlikeable, they're nigh unredeemable. Mickey can't control his gambling. Smilin' Jack becomes a vicious monster whenever anything comes between him and what he's decided he's owed. The whole neighborhood is intimidated by Jeannie's beauty, but she's too dumb to see beyond her nose. The one character that might experience a romantic redemption is the writer Shellburn, but when it comes down to it he'll settle for a roll in the hay. Everybody cheats everybody; nobody pays the slightest heed to what's asked of them.
God's Pocket works poor Mickey into some grotesque situations, in particular with Leon's corpse. Philip Seymour Hoffman totally inhabits the character, so much so that when he must run full tilt down the main street chasing his own truck, it just seems like the only thing he can do. The movie doesn't arrive at any great revelation, but I enjoyed the trip.
John Slattery's direction is excellent for camera. His camera angles are expressive but not pretentious. The dialogue and a sex situation occasionally tries too hard to be macho-tough, and come off as forced. And neither the story nor the direction seems particularly insightful of Hendricks' passive Jeanie Scarpato. She under-reacts to everything but her husband -- the only ideas she seems capable of grasping are that her rotten son is an angel, and that the Mickey is underperforming on all counts. Ms. Hendricks may simply be miscast as Jeannie - the actress comes off as too intelligent for the role.
I really enjoyed the film's gallery of ordinary folk doing unsavory deeds. The tough mob guy Sal (Domenick Lombardozzi) is almost likeable, the way he stands up for his wounded henchmen. Arthur French's "Old Lucy" is a great sketch of a black man who strikes back when there's no other choice. For a moment we think that the show will suddenly take on an anti-lynching angle. Nah, nobody in this burg could muster the necessary civic outrage; the clods that hang out in McKenna's bar would rather beat a man to death on the basis of a cheap rumor.
Hoffman and John Turturro form a truly believable relationship. English actor Eddie Marsan (Happy-Go-Lucky) is chillingly feasible as a mortician so venal, someone feels obliged to throw a punch at him whenever he shows his face. The real noir firecracker turns out to be Bird Capezio's wife, Sophie - a surprisingly tough cookie and one of the few people in this godforsaken neighborhood who seems to have common sense. She is played by the underappreciated Joyce Van Patten. How good is the acting in this movie? Ms. Van Patten is 23 years older than her screen husband Turturro, yet we never question the pair-up.
The sordid neighborhood atmosphere is as compelling as that in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River. I took God's Pocket at face value. If it is a black comedy, where are the laughs? Do audiences think a tragedy packed with sad events is automatically funny? 1
MPI's Blu-ray of God's Pocket is a perfect encoding of this color, widescreen thriller. Lance Acord's cinematography looks great in the widescreen format.
Fans of John Slattery will want to hear his feature commentary. A selection of deleted scenes is present, along with a TV spot and a very good trailer. It doesn't make the movie look like a comedy either.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. God's Pocket can probably be pigeonholed as an 'Actor's Showcase' movie, which I admit is a less commercial label than 'Black Comedy'. It's too bad that reviewers faulted it for not being like a Coen show. The difficult-to-categorize problem reminds of a great neo-noir with an equally passive hero, that's been mostly out of sight for over thirty years -- Victor Nuñs great A Flash of Green with Ed Harris, Blair Brown and Richard Jordan. It has a different style and mission, but it's an equally difficult sell.
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