In God’s Pocket, the title neighborhood is a Philadelphia subsection populated by complacent, beaten-down people, all of them sinners and losers united by their common flaws. “If you were from here you’d understand” is what the locals say to outsiders (i.e., anyone not born there) to explain their community’s odd code of solidarity, which sometimes means sticking together and sometimes means throwing each other under the bus.
This depressing blue-collar locale is the scene of dark humor, light tragedy, and general ugliness — on top of everything else, it’s 1978 — in an ambitious but cluttered film based on Pete Dexter’s novel and directed by John Slattery. Slattery (best known as Roger Sterling on “Mad Men”) clearly had some affection for it — he co-wrote the screenplay — but it may have been unwise to choose such a tonally difficult story for his directorial debut. On the other hand, if he can make something even marginally watchable out of these dismal prospects, just think what he could do with a more human and well-developed set of characters.
We begin at the funeral of Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), a 22-year-old racist dirtbag whose death is mourned by his mother (Christina Hendricks) and no one else, though everyone has come to the memorial service because that’s what you do in God’s Pocket. We flashback to a few days earlier, when Leon is killed at the construction site where he works in what everyone is calling a simple accident. (It is not.) His stepfather, Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a low-level criminal currently engaged in selling a stolen truck full of stolen meat, makes the funeral arrangements but can’t afford to pay for them, which is how Leon’s corpse ends up in the back of the refrigerated truck.
Meanwhile, there is a newspaper columnist named Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins) whose inspired commentaries on God’s Pocket have made him an object of local veneration. Women fall at his feet and into his bed; men want to shake his hand and hear his stories. Everyone in God’s Pocket drinks too much, but Shelburn has lately been drinking especially too much, causing his work to suffer. He pokes around Leon’s death in the hopes of finding a human interest story, and to seduce Leon’s grieving mother.
With its gallows humor, small-town oddballs, and occasional bursts of brutal violence, the film invites comparisons to the Coen brothers’ grimmer work. (Casting John Turturro as one of Mickey’s criminal buddies helps.) But Slattery and co-screenwriter Alex Metcalf (An American Affair) don’t even come close to the Coens’ level of character work, instead delivering an ensemble of greasy, beer-scented schlubs who are practically indiscernible from one another. Hoffman, Hendricks, and Jenkins are talented actors, but they all struggle to find their footing here; Jenkins’ columnist character, in particular, feels useless and unmotivated. It’s hard to imagine being disappointed by a Richard Jenkins performance, but here we are.
Yet I wouldn’t dismiss the film altogether. It does have moments of effective dark comedy, and the cast (which also includes stalwart character actors like Eddie Marsan, Peter Gerety, and Domenick Lombardozzi) is wholly committed to the bleak absurdity of it all. Slattery, who has directed five “Mad Men” episodes, shows a strong cinematic eye. His second film will probably be fantastic.
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