Review by-Jarrett Leahy
When Mickey Scarpato’s narrow-minded stepson, Leon, is killed in a construction “accident,” Mickey tries to handle all of the arrangements for his distraught wife, Jeanie. But when Jeanie begins to suspect that her son’s death wasn’t the accident originally reported, Mickey, must call upon the neighborhood’s more nefarious characters to investigate, while personally trying to scrounge up the funds to pay for his stepson’s funeral.
Adapted from the 1983 novel of the same name, God’s Pocket joins last year’s polarizing Lee Daniel’s drama The Paperboy as film adaptations of works from author Pete Dexter. Dexter, who was awarded the 1988 U.S. National Book Award for his novel Paris Trout, began his career as a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily back in the late 1970’s. Using the notorious South Philly neighborhood of Devil’s Pocket as the basis for his fictional story, Dexter created God’s Pocket following a real incident in which an angry group of locals attacked and severely injured him after one of his columns about a drug-deal-gone-wrong murder angered the victim’s family.
God’s Pocket is the feature directorial debut of Mad Men star, John Slattery, who also co-wrote the screenplay. While delving into this sordid world, I appreciated Slattery’s decision, with the help of famed cinematographer Lance Acord (Lost in Translation, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), to give his picture a clean, more timeless look. These days it seems so many filmmakers feel an obligation to make their period dramas look like they came right from the time period they’re depicting, often leading to cinematography that has a distinctly tinted hue. Slattery confidently avoids the trappings of stereotypical ’70’s trivialities or visual cliches, and his infusion of a farcical undertone was another unexpected delight. While replete with its fair share of acutely violent moments, I found myself laughing at a slew of peculiar incidents that came across as darkly comedic.
With the recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, God’s Pocket has attained an extra level of notoriety, now being one his last pieces of cinematic work. Hoffman’s character, Mickey Scarpato, is not originally from God’s Pocket, and he’s reminded of this fact whenever possible by those who are. While never said outright, it’s alluded to that Mickey is not Leon’s biological father. This creates an unusual emotional dynamic between Mickey and his wife, Jeanie. Hoffman expertly captures the delicate confusion of wanting to be there for the woman he loves, while fully knowing that his feelings of loss can’t come close to hers. Adding to his predicament, Mickey is short on cash, and his desire to handle all of the funeral arrangements for his wife unravels one of the film’s more twisted subplots involving sleazeball, local funeral director, Smilin’ Jack Moran, fitly portrayed by talented character actor, Eddie Marsan. Blessed with the rare gift to inhabit any character thrown his way, Hoffman is yet again at the top of his game, validating my belief that his portrayal alone was worth giving God’s Pocket a chance.
Joining Hoffman is a diverse list of veteran actors including John Turturro and Richard Jenkins along with Slattery’s fellow Mad Men co-star Christina Hendricks. Turturro, who has played his fair share of hustlers and crooks over his career, brings a welcomed gentleness to his portrayal of wanna-be hood/florist Arthur “Bird” Capezio. Jenkins character, Richard Shellburn, is a blowhard, alcoholic columnist who has made a career writing condescending editorials disguised as tributes to the neighborhood. Fueled by implausible amounts of alcohol consumption (I distinctly remember chuckling at the sight of Jenkins bellied up to the bar with five vodka screwdrivers lined up in front him), it was pretty easy to see that Shellburn was slowly unhinging from life’s realities and embracing the caricatured celebrity status his writing had created for him. If any actor can expertly capture a man unhinging from reality, it is certainly Richard Jenkins. His twisted, idiosyncratic delivery offers a level of amusing uncertainty, as you never know when this disturbed lush is going to officially crack.
Like many, I originally chose God’s Pocket strictly for Hoffman. But as this unusually compelling and darkly humorous tale of crime and neighborhood camaraderie unfolded, I found myself sucked into a world of third-rate hoods and working stiffs. Under Slattery’s competent direction, God’s Pocket never judges or patronizes the working class members of this singular neighborhood, instead using their unique perspectives on life to accentuate this intriguing and poignant drama. While not a groundbreaking effort, as a debut film, God’s Pocket shows that John Slattery has great potential as a future filmmaker.-JL