The citizens of the rough and tumble Philadelphia neighborhood in the 1970s known affectionately as God’s Pocket are really into their heritage. No matter the situation at hand, the local barflies, scrappers and steel workers are fond of pointing out that if you weren’t born there, you couldn’t possibly understand.
The film by the same name is an adaptation of beloved author Pete Dexter’s novel, rendered with marginal success by screenwriter Alex Metcalf and directed by newcomer John Slattery. Most people know Slattery as Roger Sterling in AMC’s “Mad Men,” but he also directed a few episodes. (You might also remember him as the actor who wanted to pee on Carrie Bradshaw in an early episode of “Sex and the City.”)
The number-one reason to put on your shoes and see this flawed, but not without its charms, film is that it’s one of the last pictures Philip Seymour Hoffman gave us before abruptly leaving the earth earlier this year. After this, our last chances to see Hoffman are a small movie shot in Germany called A Most Wanted Man and the last of The Hunger Games trilogy, although that hardly counts.
In God’s Pocket, Hoffman stars as Mickey Scarpato, a man who’s not from the neighborhood but seems to have assimilated just fine; he makes a living selling stuff that falls off trucks. Mickey’s married to Jeanie (played by the other “Mad Men” alumna Christina Hendricks) and they live with her son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones). From the moment Leon wakes up in the morning to his untimely death just a few hours later, Leon proves himself to be a thoroughly terrible person. I mean, his mom lovingly makes him a sandwich for work and the kid swallows a bunch of pills and throws the sandwich out the car window. What a brat. When the old black man he’s been taunting with racial slurs on the job site has had enough and takes him out in a swift, fatal blow, the witnesses on the scene unite—as is the custom of proud God’s Pocket citizens—and tell the cops it was an ordinary on-the-job accident that slayed the beast.
If it sounds like I’m giving away a vital plot point, I assure you that’s not the case. The movie opens on the kid’s funeral, so he’s a marked man from the start, and anything that happens thereafter unfolds plainly and in chronological order for everyone to see. This is a movie with no real secrets and no ambiguities for an intelligent audience to poke its head around.
On the other side of the tracks lives Richard Shellburn, an alcoholic and pretentious news columnist played by Richard Jenkins. Shellburn’s been writing affectionately about the blue-collar workers of God’s Pocket for years and seems universally read and beloved by everyone. Shellburn brazenly drinks a pint of whiskey behind his desk at the office and shrugs off his boss’ gentle cajoling to maybe lay off the sauce a while. This was the 1970s, remember, when journalists didn’t live in terror of the sure knowledge that their jobs were marginalized and easily expendable. The fact that everyone in this town reads the newspaper feeds into my journalistic fantasies but still seems a little far-fetched.
Everybody’s content to shrug off Leon’s murder as an accident but his mother Jeanie, who correctly intuits foul play, and now the competing storylines intersect when Shellburn’s assigned to investigate the story further. He’s attracted to Jeanie, because who wouldn’t be? Somewhere in this extramarital courtship, the movie has a thing to say about puny writers using their marginal celebrity to seduce women, and it’s not nice.
Meanwhile, Mickey can’t afford to pay the coroner, who gets mad and throws Leon’s body on the street. If the sudden Weekend at Bernie’s inspired subplot strikes you as out of place tonally, you’re not alone.
In some ways, a movie’s only job is to make you forget that you’re watching actors playing make believe, but with this one, given our grief and what we know of his untimely death, you can’t help but want to watch Hoffman act. As the cuckolded, put-upon man, Hoffman plays the part with a sharp, gruff accent and resigned coolness. He looks heavy and tired, and watching him in this way made me feel equal parts sad and grateful. Here was a man suffering on the inside but too committed to his craft to hold anything back.
God’s Pocket continues at the Wilma.This story was updated to list the correct theater. It's playing at the Wilma, not the Carmike.