John Turturro and Philip Seymour Hoffman are up to no good in "God's Pocket." Credit: IFC Films
‘God’s Pocket’ Director: John Slattery Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks Rating: R 3 (out of 5) Globes
Blue-collar types tend to be either romanticized or demonized. The work of Pete Dexter does neither. His debut novel, “God’s Pocket,” hung out in a dead-end section of South Philadelphia, where those born there rarely leave and outsiders are viewed with suspicion. It can be a dangerous place, but it’s mostly harmless, a distinction understood by its new adaptation, which also marks the first film directed by John Slattery. His film has its rookie problems, but it gets the feeling of a cloistered urban space where some are restless, some prefer to drink themselves to death, and others just eke by.
Granted, it does live by the cliche that regular folks are played by familiar movie stars, albeit the kind of terrific character actors who fade into their roles. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last performances, heads an all-star cast as Mickey, a boozing lowlife who picks up trucks. His loose cannon stepson (Caleb Landry Jones) dies at his construction job — actually is whacked upside the head by a day laborer he provoked — and Mickey’s often absurdist attempts to deal with the body, with no money to pay for the funeral, form the film’s loose plot.
But it’s mostly a series of episodes, going nowhere much at all. John Turturro, relaxed and funny, plays Mickey’s colleague, stuck with outstanding debts. Christina Hendricks is Mickey’s wife, who suspects foul play in her son’s death. Richard Jenkins looms on the sidelines as a judgmental former resident who made it good as a big-time (local) columnist. (Dexter had the same job, and the character in part exists to stress the author’s lack of arrogance.) These segments range in tone: Most are darkly funny in some way, though some are more broad than others. Turturro and Eddie Marsan’s showy funeral director appear to be in different films than Hoffman’s withdrawn sadsack. One bit puts the old saying “it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye” into literal, possibly too gruesome practice.
Would a more experienced filmmaker have been able to smooth out the tone, make it more of a piece? Definitely. But Slattery’s debut — after directing episodes of “Mad Men” — has a ramshackle charm, and one that seems more comfortable with the down-and-out than it does with … well, no one’s not down-and-out, not even Jenkins’ journo, who pounds cans in the car and dreams of sidling up the neighborhood bar he likes to demonize in print. With his first feature, Slattery gets some things wrong, but he gets right things that no one does.