God’s Pocket is the kind of neighborhood where everyone knows everyone else’s business and residents go by such names as Smilin’ Jack and Old Lucy; where the only way to get rich is by betting on horses; and the sole way to settle an argument is with fists. In his feature directorial debut, John Slattery brings the working-class south Philly neighborhood vividly — or grayly, really — to life in “God’s Pocket,” with a cast headed by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The late actor plays Mickey, a man with problems. His stepson has just died, and the boy’s mother, Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), tasks Mickey with finding out what really happened. In truth, Leon was killed while working his factory job, and the little sociopath had it coming. His co-workers aren’t willing to talk to the police, except for one, and he has a prohibitive stutter. So the official word is that Leon’s death was an on-the-job accident.
This leads to another conundrum: Mickey can’t pay for the pricey mahogany casket Jeanie wants, much less the funeral. He needs to be repaid by his friend and partner-in-crime (literally), Arthur (John Turturro), but Arthur already owes thousands to an extremely scary mobster played by Domenick Lombardozzi.
One problem leads to another, and pretty soon there’s an avalanche of car crashes and gunshots, eye-gouging and even a runaway corpse. You might call it a black comedy of errors, but the humorous side of the film is less well executed than Slattery’s impeccable creation of a certain neighborhood feel.
The residents of God’s Pocket wear ill-fitting beige suits and drive the kind of roomy cars in which velour interior comes standard. It could be that the movie is set in the same era as its source material, a 1983 novel by Pete Dexter. But the trappings only add to a feeling that God’s Pocket is a place that time forgot. Even the local newspaper columnist (played by Richard Jenkins) has given up on moving forward; he merely writes the same opinion piece again and again, filling his copious free time with booze and women.
The movie’s earliest scenes feel somber, as if a tragic ending is inevitable. But then, somewhere around the mid-point, the tone pivots into more of a dark comedy. Suddenly the movie starts to feel a lot like last year’s violent and humorous “Killing Them Softly,” only without the clear messaging. What began as an intriguing snapshot begins to feel grotesque and inscrutable.
But through it all, Hoffman shines as Mickey, a guy who can’t quite get anything right. He fumbles from task to task with a conspicuous frown on his face as if he’s constantly sizing up his chaotic surroundings, even though he never knows what to do about them. Although the bouts of comedy make a calamitous finale feel less imminent, the tragedy remains: Our opportunities to see Hoffman’s work are numbered, and even in a flawed movie, he’s beyond reproach.
★ ★ ½
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains violence, language, sex and nudity. 88 minutes.