We come away with a strong sense of place and the characters who inhabit it in actor John Slattery’s debut as a film director. The drama may not be as focused as we might like, but Slattery’s outstanding gallery of actors make this an ensemble piece that commands our attention: These dead-end characters stick out like bas reliefs in the community framework.
Adapted by Slattery and Alex Metcalf from Pete Dexter’s first novel, God’s Pocket is a rather dark and hopeless tale that takes its title from the depressed, working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia that the storytellers bring to life. An opening voiceover describes the community’s residents as lifers who live, work, marry, follow their sports teams, and die all within the boundaries of their neighborhood. New generations come and go, and nobody trusts anyone from outside the neighborhood. Even Mickey Scarpato (Hoffman), a low-level criminal who seems to be loved by everybody, can be regarded as an outsider since he’s only lived in God’s Pocket for the 17 years he’s been married to Jeanie (Hendricks – Slattery’s castmate from Mad Men).
The voiceover we hear over the opening sequence belongs to the alcoholic newspaper columnist Richard Shellburn (Jenkins), who’s been writing about this neighborhood for the last 20 years – though, in truth, he does more drinking than writing these days. The film opens at a funeral, and then flashes back to the preceding three days to reveal the events that led to this moment. The kid being put to rest (Jones) was a rotten piece of work, who appears not to be missed by anyone other than his mother Jeanie. Yet his death in a “workplace accident” isn’t especially plausible either. Mickey just wants to come up with the cash needed to pay for the funeral that’s being arranged by the mortician Smilin’ Jack (Marsan), but one scheme after another leaves him more flat broke than he was before. By his side through it all is his friend Bird (Turturro), who’s in heavy debt to some serious gangsters.
God’s Pocket continually cuts among these various characters and their predicaments, which creates a jumpy overall rhythm. The viewer is never sure which storyline is the dominant one, although Hoffman’s Mickey is the unifying thread running through it all. Mickey is the kind of schlubby loser that Philip Seymour Hoffman excelled at playing, especially in small, indie projects such as this one. As one of the actor’s last completed projects, God’s Pocket will serve, no doubt, as a better epitaph than his work in the upcoming episodes of The Hunger Games.