What would Roger Sterling, the character John Slattery plays on Mad Men, think of God’s Pocket? (The film is actor Slattery’s directorial debut.) For those who don’t watch Mad Men, Roger is a salesman extraordinaire; a smooth-tongued, silver-maned cynic; a boozehound philanderer who has also experimented with LSD as the show has made its way through the 1960s. For all his bad behavior, Roger is a respectable square at heart, but he’d rather die than let anyone know that.
About this film, a downbeat drama with too few flashes of crazy black humor, Roger would say “Who wants to see a movie about violent poor people, a bunch of dirty drunks and gamblers? Who cares about these losers?”
“Who cares?” is actually the big question posed by God’s Pocket, based on a Pete Dexter novel. Set in an insular working-class neighborhood in 1970s-era Philadelphia, the film is notable for being one of the last screen appearances of the late, sorely missed Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s wonderful and entirely convincing as a blue-collar, mildly criminal lug named Mickey Scarpato, who keeps trying and trying to do the right thing. Mostly he fails, but this is the kind of movie where you get points for simply continuing to try.
Mickey is married to Jeannie, played by Slattery’s Mad Men costar Christina Hendricks. Her lazy, loserish, stupidly racist son from a first marriage, Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), is killed at the brickyard where he works (the film starts at his funeral and then flashes back for most of its length). Everyone says it was an accident but Jeannie doesn’t believe it, and her attempts to find out what really happened eventually involve Mickey, his partner-in-crime (John Turturro), and Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins), a drunken, fading newspaper columnist who prides himself on being the voice of the generally voiceless people in places like God’s Pocket.
Like many actors turned directors, Slattery has been able to recruit these and a lot of other wonderful character actors to tell this story. God’s Pocket is graced with fine performances, particularly Hoffman, Turturro (no surprises there), and Hendricks. She’s like a tall, beautiful flower, costumed in reds, purples, and lilacs that make her stand out from the sea of browns, yellows, and grays that define her environment. As she does on Mad Men, Hendricks suggests levels of intelligence and hurt, hidden feelings behind her flawless face and statuesque bombshell figure.
What Slattery has been less successful at is finding a balance between this sad, gritty story and the moments of absurdist black humor that pepper the film. It’s not that the humor undercuts the drama so much as that it leaps out unexpectedly - kind of the way this can happen in real life. I won’t give away the shocks/surprises, but suffice it to say that although Leon dies early on in the film, he (or rather his body) continue to present challenges to Mickey, and that a refrigerated truck full of stolen meat is an important prop.
There’s also a hysterical scene involving Joyce Van Patten as a casually murderous flower-shop owner. This is the kind of movie where you can totally empathize with someone who has just committed a double homicide.
However, there are also enough gaps in the plot to make the story tough to follow at points. I haven’t read the novel so I don’t know if this is a problem with the screenplay, which Slattery co-wrote with Alex Metcalf, or in Slattery’s direction. Either way, these narrative leaps can make the film’s 88-minute running time seem longer than that, despite the good company provided by the actors.
Slattery and company are to be applauded for trying to tell a true-enough story about people and places that the middle-class world, the media, and entertainment usually overlook. It’s also admirable that the film doesn’t try to ennoble the God’s Pocket residents: they are ignorant, violent, racist, and irresponsible, but they can also be tough, funny, smart and courageous. In other words, they’re real people. If that and seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman one more time is enough of a draw for you, check out God’s Pocket, in theaters beginning May 9.