Those thirsting for another shining showcase of Hoffman's gift will be sorely disappointed.
Following the recent loss of one of the best (if not the best) performers of our generation, it feels like a gift to be able to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman grace a movie screen in any capacity. It’s something to be savored, but in God’s Pocket, one of his last ever roles, his talents, along with the talents of the rest of the uniformly brilliant cast, are done little justice. Everyone struggles here, including first time director John Slattery (Mad Men), who grasps and grasps but can’t manage to find a singular vision for the jumbled, lifeless tiny-town crime flick.
Hoffman plays Mickey Scarpato, an exhausted-looking fellow who lives in the titular South Philly neighborhood with his bored wife Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) and rotten stepson Leon (Caleb Landry Jones, who maximizes the few minutes he’s given). Leon is a terror of a shit-talker, infuriating his co-workers at his factory job to no end. Or rather, to his end: After pushing one of the boys to the brink with awful racist insults, he’s clobbered on the head and…well…so begins Mickey’s landslide of problems. He must bury the boy to appease the unappeasable Jeanie, which leads to him racking up major debt and getting mixed up with dirty mafia types.
The tone, writing, and performances in God’s Pocket are all incredibly awkward, which is a surprise considering the artists at work. Hoffman just can’t get his hands on the character of Mickey, with a fluctuating accent and emotionally ambiguous reactions to just about every situation. He clicks best with John Turturro, who plays his Sopranos-esque best friend and confidant Arthur, but even their chemistry doesn’t feel completely natural.
The characters are written too loosely, oscillating between working class clichés and unreadable moralism. Jeanie begins to take a liking to Philly celebrity journalist Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), an old scumbag who makes a pass at her while sitting on Leon’s twin bed. The infidelity seems to be born out of her resentment toward Mickey, but her inner struggle is conveyed with the depth and subtlety of a pea-brained bimbo by Hendricks, who is capable of so much more.
There’s something off about the script (written by Slattery and Alex Metcalf), which tries very hard to mix quirky small-town humor with flashes of shocking violence. Both the comedic and dramatic elements are woefully uncalibrated and unbalanced, canceling each other out at every turn. When Arthur’s elderly mother shoots a goon in the chest at the family store, the man bleeding out on the floor, it’s hard to figure out the scene’s intended effect. The tired “old lady turns out to be a badass” gag is clearly comedic, but as Turturro kicks the dying man in the stomach screaming “This is my family!”, it all just feels very, very uncomfortable.
The neighborhood of God’s Pocket is well-crafted by Slattery and his crew, and well shot by cinematographer Lance Acord. The costumes and sets are rightly gritty, conveying the perpetual hard-drinking slump of similar salt-of-the-earth communities. The visual presentation is convincing–it’s just too bad that it’s the only thing convincing about this mediocre production. The stakes are unclear, the story is aimless, the performances are half-hearted, and those thirsting for another shining showcase of Hoffman’s gift will be sorely disappointed.