God's PocketReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/20/14 14:47:47
There are moments, especially toward the end of "God's Pocket", when I wonder if John Slattery has made a Trojan Horse of a movie, giving an audience expecting an honest-but-affectionate story about earthy folks in a tough neighborhood a parody of the genre instead. He might have been better off committing more fully in one direction or another, as his early good efforts playing it straight don't quite translate so well into handling the second half's weirdness.Things are admittedly a bit odd in the titular Philadelphia neighborhood from the start, as small-time crook Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman) helps his butcher friend Arthur Carpezio (John Turturro) heist a truck full of meat. While he's doing that, Leon Hubbard (Caleb Landry Jones) is making a fatal mistake at his construction job, and while he's a mouthy twerp that only his mother will miss, that mother is Mickey's wife Jeannie (Christina Hendricks), who doesn't believe the story of a construction accident and implores both Mickey and the police to find out what really happened. Also on that beat? Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), an alcoholic newspaper columnist who has been writing about the area for twenty years and is sent in when his paper gets every detail of even the official story wrong.
Nobody actually gets very far in figuring out what happened to Leon for at least the first half of the movie, although it's not in any way a mystery - he does on-screen in a way that's not particularly likely to have the audience clamor for things to come out on principle. But it's more or less okay; Slattery and his cast put together a comfortable group of small-timers, mostly in orbit around Philip Seymour Hoffman's Mickey. Mickey is the sort of guy Hoffman seems to have been born to play, a bit smarter than the folks around him but too lethargic to really take advantage of that, naturally at home on a barstool answering the next guy's questions in detail even though he looks like he wants to be left alone. Mickey maybe doesn't do a whole lot but get by, but Hoffman knows how to make that sort of guy connect and Slattery (adapting a novel by Peter Dexter) puts him in the right place for that to work. It's almost too effective, since Mickey is described as someone who can never truly be a part of God's Pocket because he wasn't born there, but Hoffman just fits in so well.
That's at least in part a reflection of how well he works with the rest of the cast. It's easy to imagine Mickey and Arthur as lifelong friends, especially as John Turturro plays the latter as the basically optimistic balance to Mickey, keeping a small smile through bad situations because he knows nothing will ever really change. Richard Jenkins plays Shellburn as a wisecracking reporter from the 1940s who has been soaking in gin for about thirty years, an almost-useless mess whose way with words and wit have not entirely disappeared. He is, despite his cynicism, more or less helpless when confronted with Jeannie; Christina Hendricks (with assistance from hair, makeup, and costume departments that know she should never be truly disheveled) makes for an unwitting siren. No matter how much she's broken down or flanked by disapproving sisters, Mickey and Richard are going to try and please her because that is the natural order of things, even if she is mostly unaware of that fact.
There are other character actors filling out the cast and doing good work, most recognizably Eddie Marsan as the funeral director who isn't particularly subtle about sticking people at their low point dry. It's his character that pulls the epic dick move that signify that <I>God's Pocket</I> is flipping a switch from being mostly serious (though not dour) to having a lot of dark-humored farce, and it's jarring enough that it takes a few beats to process just what has happened. Much of what happens after that is actually an outline for a fairly amusing black comedy, although the number of bits that don't quite work as well as they could make it even harder for Slattery to steer the movie in the more comedic direction. This continue right up to the end, where what stats out as an amusing bit of satire - would you like being portrayed this way if this were your home? - goes on past where it's funny and is followed by a coda that just doesn't fit.Even if "God's Pocket" didn't slip tentatively into self-parody, it would be kind of a minor thing, yet another movie about folks living in a rough neighborhood in another decade. They're not exactly in short supply, even with nice detail and a good cast, after all. One that could have had a laugh at its own expense would have been something special, but this one misses out by not choosing a direction and going all in.
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