John Slattery’s “God’s Pocket” boasts an impressive cast, with the likes of Phillip Seymour Hoffman (in one of his last roles), John Turturro, Christina Hendricks and Richard Jenkins. Cinematographer Lance Accord gives the picture a naturalistic, at times noir-ish look. And it introduces various characters and plot strands. But, ultimately, doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.
The screenplay — by Slattery and Alex Metcalf, based on the book by Peter Dexter — doesn’t do an adequate job of developing the characters, and overall, the story is half-baked and bland, resulting in an underwhelming and pointless movie.
The film is set in the Philadelphia neighborhood God’s Pocket. It’s one of those dead-end, blue-collar neighborhoods full of simple folk who are born and raised there and never leave. They work some manual-labor job and then go to the local dank-and-dim bar and, in the words of one of the characters, “talk about things they don’t understand.”
If the movie is about anything, you can be sure it’s that the world is a harsh, unforgiving place. God’s Pocket is the kind of neighborhood where people will cover up a murder that’s blatantly taken place on a job site, or where the funeral-home director will leave a cadaver outside in the pouring rain because he didn’t get his fee, Oddly enough, both those things happen to Mickey (Hoffman) one way or the other.
When we first meet him, he’s in a lifeless marriage with Jeanie (Hendricks), and his involvement in illegal activities (gambling, stealing a meat truck, etc.) with his friend Arthur (John Turturro) seems to be his full-time job.
The trouble begins when Jeanie’s son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) is killed at a construction site. The workers cover it, and Mickey makes funeral arrangements. However, Jeanie thinks something is up and wants answers; meanwhile, due to a gambling loss, Mickey has no money to bury his stepson. Poor Leon only has about five minutes of screen time, but in that he’s shown as being racist, ignorant and stubborn — he gets what he deserves.
The problems with “God’s Pocket” begin right away: Why should we care whether this guy gets buried? And why should Mickey go through as much hassle as he does to do it? There’s no sign of a relationship between them, and their individual characters aren’t fleshed out well enough to make us look past this.
At only 90 minutes, “God’s Pocket” is unbelievably short and could have easily benefited from being longer to allow for more character and story development. By the end, so little is accomplished.
Jeanie’s decision to look for answers about her son is never really followed through. A subplot involving Arthur and his run-in with gangsters is barely developed and resolves abruptly and unsatisfyingly.
There’s also the character of Richard Shellburn (Jenkins), an alcoholic newspaper columnist who writes about the neighborhood (usually condescendingly) and is asked to get to the bottom of Leon’s death. Again, like much of everything else, this isn’t followed through. And the character doesn’t serve much of a purpose, other than to be a depressed and sum up the movie’s themes in voice-over (disguised in his newspaper columns). A romantic fling between him and Jeanie pretty much comes out of nowhere and doesn’t evolve into anything worthwhile, either.
The only plot strand that’s actually followed through is Mickey’s adventure (filled with much bad luck) in trying to come up with the money to give Leon a funeral. However, the film begins with the said funeral so any chance at tension is immediately eliminated.
All the actors give it their best shot: Hoffman gives a good, unassuming performance, and Jenkins is entertaining as a journalist who thinks he’s above everyone else. However,, they’re ultimately let down by a script desperately in need of a rewrite or two.
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