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God’s Pocket – Review

August 6, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia

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In one of our last glimpses at the tragically missed Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the leading actor puts in the same hard-working shift he did in every role. But, even with Hoffman’s best efforts, and that of the brilliantly well-casted line of actors on show, God’s Pocket treads cliché lines, fails to dive deep enough into any of the characters, and ends up plodding along into a muddled mess. It feels like the first draft of what could end up being quite a good film. But all we see on the screen is what seems like an outline of a feature: a messy, infuriating story that rides along the surface and refuses to chisel a bit deeper.

Mad Men actor John Slattery’s directorial debut tells the story of three days in God’s pocket, a fictional downtrodden working-class area of Philly. It’s a town full of gamblers, drunks, criminals, prostitutes, accents and drama. An insular community where outsiders are not welcome and where there’s characters called Old Lucy and Smilin’ Jack. You get the idea.

When Leon, a young seedy racist knife-wielding construction worker, messes around with the wrong colleague, he ends up with a fatal blow to the head. All the workers agree to cover up and defend their man, to tell the police that it was merely an accident, except one of them, but guess what? Coincidentally, he has an intense stutter so any chance of the truth getting out seems slim.

The next 72 hours all play around the neighbourhood, from Leon’s mum, Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) overwhelmed with despair and bent on finding out how her son died, to her luckless, outsider husband, Mickey (Hoffman) who has to gather enough funds to pay for a funeral in time. Hoffman plays a sweaty, fumbling thief who is well-connected – he drinks, gambles and trades with the locals. Mickey’s task to get Leon buried in time takes us around the community which acts as a character gallery of the broken and the hopeful.

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There’s also the parallel story of Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins), a minor celebrity in the city who writes a daily column but has been spending most of his time focused down the bottleneck of a whiskey or two. Espousing much of the comedy of the film, he is tasked with writing a story on the death, yet becomes more interested in chatting up Leon’s mother.

There’s a lot going on in the film, but in the end, none of it really adds up to anything: with more precision and more style, this film that veers between melancholic family drama and black comedy, could have been something to applaud. However, billed as a black dramedy, the absurdist laughs only start to reach for the gears midway through and only bloom towards the end and it seems more of something that Slattery practiced and learnt as he went along. As it goes on, it becomes clearer that Slattery was still trying to figure out the tone of the piece even as the finale approached.

As a result, the film starts to fall apart under the inconsistent tone and half-baked ideas. There’s also the cliché of having every archetypal character of a downtrodden Philly town included from the town drunk to the powerful mobster and his gang. Certain lines themselves (“It’s cold” “Yeah, well it’s a cold world”) sound more like something Richard Shelburn would write at the end of another Jack Daniels instead of something anyone in real life would ever utter. Even as the problems start to unravel, with martial affairs, bodies falling out of meat trucks, sprinkled with gunshots and eye-gouging, so does the film. Packed with a lot of stories and a lot of drama, God’s Pocket becomes unable to treat any of them with enough depth and they all soon fall flat and tedious.

For all its flaws, the one element Slattery got right was the cast, and what a cast. Turturro gives a fantastic performance as Bird, Mickey’s best friend, a kindhearted desperate crook who owes a lot of money to a lot of important people. Yet, Hendricks is wasted as Leon’s mother. It seems her only role was to be seduced by slimey men and become hysteric about her son’s untimely death – a clichéd character who could have amounted to much more if given the chance to delve under the surface. There’s broad issues lurking about in the back of the scenes, from inequality and desperation, to sexism and racism, but they are never confronted.

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That’s the problem, with such a great cast yet so little to work on, the audience is left with a draft, an idea of a drama that could have been so much more memorable. You realize after seeing Hoffman in the opening scene, that our chances to see him perform in new films are limited. Sadly, this is not the film he’ll be remembered for. But, Hoffman still retains the ability to cut through the dreary dull slice of life this film presents and show us a master at work, someone who will be truly missed, and unlike this film, unforgettable.

God’s Pocket is out in UK cinemas on August 8th

Oliver Smith