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God's Pocket is either an atonal dark comedy that takes itself too seriously in order to work, or a drab and dour drama about the plight of the working class that contains a surprising amount of unintentional humor. Since the cast and crew are comprised of consummate professionals who usually know what they're doing, I lean towards the first theory and conclude that the writers and the director perhaps had different visions for this material.
Directed by Mad Men cast and crew alum John Slattery, who helmed five episodes of the immensely popular series while portraying Roger Sterling, the Joe Pesci to Don Draper's Robert DeNiro, God's Pocket was adapted by Slattery and Alex Metcalf from Peter Dexter's (The Paperboy) novel.
The first glaring problem is Slattery's insistence on compacting an entire mini-series worth of material into a feature that's barely ninety minutes long. What's supposed to be one of those sprawling ensemble pieces where the location is the real main character, Slattery didn't, or couldn't, give his feature debut enough space to let the characters breathe and come to life.
Sub-plots vital to the story, like one about the burgeoning affair between an alcoholic journalist (Richard Jenkins) and a grieving mother (A miscast Christina Hendricks) develop at too much of a breakneck speed to work. Some of the most memorable scenes revolve around background characters who were barely introduced. A construction worker beating the snot out of two wiseguys and what looks to be a sweet old flower shop owner hilariously finishing the job the worker started would have had even more of an impact if we knew who they were prior to their big moments.
During his commentary, Slattery alludes to budget and time constraints that kept him from completing some key scenes, including a more comprehensive opening sequence. If he didn't have the practical means to construct a three-plus-hour epic, perhaps cutting out some characters and sub-plots while focusing on a single story instead of the resulting scattershot approach could have worked better.
The working class town of God's Pocket is one of those depressing places where any color other than gray has a harder time surviving than the residents themselves and where optimism is a four-letter word. Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman in unfortunately one of his final performances) is a world-weary thief and one of the few locals who's not from God's Pocket, which is a fact everyone else in God's Pocket relish in reminding him.
When his cartoonishly violent and racist son-in-law Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) is murdered, Mickey has to find a way to raise the burial money before the funeral while he's forced to lug Leon's dead body across town. This premise alone sounds like a Coen Brothers-esque dark comedy but this story develops too slowly because of the bevy of underdeveloped sub-plots vying for the film's attention while the drab tone of the execution works against any humor that could have been extracted out of a premise that should have organically produced it.
The direction and the performances are dead serious during scenes that were obviously supposed to be darkly comic, like a scene where Mickey has to explain to his wife that her son's body was kept strictly separate from the beef after a meat truck carrying him gets involved in an accident, causing the bystanders to believe Leon to be the driver. The writing is there for a perfect dark comedy tone, but Slattery's execution of it is dead wrong.
In tune with the location of the story, God's Pocket offers such a dreary visual style that it's two shades away from being black-and-white. If you're looking for a bright and colorful Blu-Ray experience, you've come to the wrong place. However, the transfer itself looks very faithful to the source material without any video noise and sports a crisp and clean look.
We get two audio options, a 5.1 DTS-HD track as well as 2.0 PCM Lossless Stereo. The 5.1 track offers clean dialogue and a mix that's so front heavy, I was reminded that I was watching the disc on my surround system when the only obvious surround presence presented itself at the very end of the film. If you don't have a surround system in place, the 2.0 track will work perfectly well.
Commentary by John Slattery: Slattery presents an in-depth look into the behind-the-scenes process of bringing God's Pocket to the screen. However, his clinical approach to the technical process might turn some listeners off. If you're a hardcore fan of the film it might offer some valuable information but otherwise it can be easily skipped.
Deleted Scenes: Judging by the lack of development on many sub-plots, I would have guessed that the home video release of God's Pocket would have sported at least 30 minutes of deleted scenes. What we get instead is a series of brief, unimportant moments that last three minutes in total.
We also get a Trailer, a TV Spot and Previews for other IFC Films releases.
Almost all of the performances, down to the bit parts, are uniformly solid as God's Pocket offers some memorable scenes that can't gel together into a cohesive whole. It's a solid effort in a technical sense and despite the tonal and editing issues should provide an intriguing hour and a half to fans of ensemble dramas, especially if you would like to see one of Philip Seymour Hoffman's last performances.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com