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GOD’S POCKET – The Review

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Just a week after the release of a feature film directed by a prominent actor, I’m speaking of FADING GIGOLO by John Tuturro, comes another one helmed by an actor. But this is his feature film debut, oh, and he’s not in front of the camera (but Tuturro is, the busy guy!). GOD’S POCKET is helmed by John Slattery who has attained TV immortality as indulgent “bad boy” Roger Sterling on AMC’s “Mad Men”, where he cut his film making teeth calling the shots on five episodes. With this feature he’s back doing a period piece (his TV show is set from 1960-69, while this film appears to be from the late 70’s early 80’s…no cell phones or computers and everybody drives a big ‘gas-guzzler’), but the characters are laborers and petty thieves, not ad execs. Same general  East Coast area though. The film’s title refers to a working class section of New York state. He’s brought one of his TV co-stars along for this project, but besides Mr. Tuturro, the film’s great hook may be the chance to see a bit more of one of modern cinema’s greatest character actors who was taken from us much too soon.

The film opens with a somber funeral, then quickly backs up several days prior to the sad farewell. Mickey Scarpato (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a transplant living in the neighborhood of God’s Pocket. He’s the second husband of gorgeous native Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) and is the stepfather to her twenty-something son Leon (Caleb Laandry Jones). After dropping Leon off at his job at the concrete plant, Mickey joins his pal Arthur (John Tuturro) and a local loan shark as they hijack a big truck full of frozen meat. Next the film introduces us to burned-out, boozy newspaper columnist Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins) who has penned many odes to the “working-class stiffs” from the Pocket (“where everybody knows everybody’s business”). That morning the motor-mouthed Leon bullies the wrong guy at work and meets his maker. His boss and co-workers tells the authorities that a “freak accident” claimed the kid. Jeanie doesn’t believe this and contacts the local newspaper editor who puts Shellburn on the story, much to his aggravation until he meets the grieving bombshell. Meanwhile Mickey struggles to collect the cash to pay the conniving funeral director “Smilin'” Jack (Eddie Marsan) for Leon as the gambling-addicted Arthur tries to stave off those nasty debt-collectors.

As this is the first post-passing Hoffman feature to be released, it’s hard to view the Mickey character without looking for hints at the actor’s fate. His appearance is puffy, lethargic, and subdued. How much here was the role interpretation and was any of it the performer’s physical limitations. A sequence in which he chases his truck down the street may have been meant as comedy, but it now plays as harrowing and disturbing. Besides the tragedy, we wonder what Hoffman saw in the character in the first place. He could play this schlubby, put-upon guy in his sleep. And what does the bodacious Jeanie see in this nebbish? This sad mother has none of the smarts that Hendrick’s Joan character possesses on “Mad Men” in addition to the “va-va-voom” factor. With her raven tresses and too-tight dresses Jeanie resembles a pasta-fed Jessica Rabbit. But besides the loss of her son, she’s has another heartache as she resign herself to using her body in order to get things done (like the mystery of her son’s demise). Jones as said son (Jeanie must have been a child bride) is such an obnoxious creep we wonder how the stringy-haired thug lasted a full day on the job (were they smitten with his Mom too?). Leon’s not that different from the screw-up Jones played in last year’s CONTRABAND, so the guy’s in dangerous of being typecast. Tuturro’s not as calm and cool as his hustler in GIGOLO, but he’s not given much to do other than advising Mickey and conning the thugs on his heels (there’s hint of his MILLER’S CROSSING work here). Jenkins is doing a take on the colorful, hard-drinking news writers of the past like NYC’s Jimmy Breslin and Chicago’s Mike Royko, but he comes off as so sullen and manipulative. A scene in which an eager journalism major a third his age “services’ him as he’s arguing with his frustrated editor is quite repugnant. He’s a low-level celeb using his past glories on everyone and is shocked that the Pocket residents find his portrayal of them unflattering. Like his co-stars, the talented Jenkins gives more to the role than it deserves.

And as far as talent goes, Slattery proved himself a gifted director with the “Mad Men” episodes he’s helmed (getting many great performance from himself!), but here the flimsy, disjointed material does him in. There’s a desire for us to become enamored of the community’s blue-collar, “salts of the Earth”, but they come off as cruel and petty. The eccentrics of the local watering hole aren’t colorful eccentric, but sad, pathetic barflies. Slattery and his co-screenwriter Alex Metcalf adapting Peter Dexter’s 1983 novel try to give this a Scorsese vibe with random, out-of-left-field violence to punctuate scenes, but it comes off as heavy-handed and desperate. A subplot involving the moving of a corpse seems like a clumsy, half-hearted swipe at Hitchcock’s THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY. These uninvolving characters and scenes never really connect into a compelling narrative. Once Roger Sterling flies off into TV series heaven next year, let’s hope that the promising Slattery will find more engaging original material because GOD’S POCKET is not worth the effort to exit the turnpike.

2 Out of 5

GOD’S POCKET opens everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Tivoli Theatre

 

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Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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