Actor turned director John Slattery brings his trademark black humor and cynicism from his MAD MEN role (and effective helming of occasional episodes) to the big screen with the successfully offbeat GOD'S POCKET, a faithful adaptation of Pete Dexter's 1983 novel about the Lower Depths of a Philly neighborhood. Clearly not for all tastes, the film appealed to my love of against the grain, anti-trendy cinema (more about that later).
The late Philip Seymour Hoffman clearly admired this material too, taking on a producer credit, as did the film's cinematographer. His role is reminiscent of his work in Sidney Lumet's final movie BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD, portraying a ne'er-do-well criminal trying to survive in a hostile environment. It's not a showy role, and Hoffman consistently underplays while Slattery gives many supporting players the flashy, show-stopping scenes.
Slattery shows great confidence in never explicitly referring to the film's time frame ('80s) -there are no superimposed Time Cards, no narration, just the period clothing, cars and old rotary telephones to indicate we're watching a period piece. Hoffman is cast as an outsider in the Philadelphia slum cynically known as God's Pocket, married to the glamorous Christina Hendricks (a Slattery good luck charm from his lengthy stint opposite her on MAD MEN), living with her nutty and self- destructive son (flamboyant and talented young actor Caleb Landry Jones).
Hoffman's partner in crime is skillfully etched by John Turturro, who like Hoffman is a gambling addict. They are more in danger from The Mob than the police due to their inevitable debts arising from playing the ponies, and Turturro's pipe dreams of owning a race horse some day.
The ensuing comedy of errors gives Slattery the opportunity to distract and surprise the viewer with unexpected turns of events and shocks which I won't spoil here. Character actress Joyce Van Patten, whom I have admired since first being impressed by her '60s TV appearances and choice role over 40 years back in the forgotten 20th Century Fox youth picture MAKING IT, highlights the movie's most memorable scene as Turturro's sister running a flower shop and dealing with a couple of armed and dangerous Mob goons.
Themes of the story, personal to author Dexter and drawn from his stint as a reporter in Philly, are brought out by the nearly washed-up columnist effortlessly played by Richard Jenkins. His adulterous romance with Hendricks' character is unbelievable, but Hendricks (still awaiting the breakthrough movie role she deserves a la Sophia Loren's career-making opportunity in TWO WOMEN) does lend her ambiguity and nuance known to her legion of fans from MAD MEN's Joan to almost make it work.
Dealing with the venal undertaker Eddie Marsan (a standout here on loan from Mike Leigh's stock company), Hoffman descends into strange and uncomfortable black comedy dealing with the "body removal" antics involving his stepson, treated by Slattery using a flashback structure that may or may not have been the best choice for storytelling. Various violent outbursts lead to a coda which almost parodies happy endings.
Besides the Hitchcockian morbid black humor involving the stepson's corpse, the climactic moment of mob violence (not Mob but lowercase mob) in which the insular denizens of God's Pocket unite against outsiders recalls the Master of Suspense's power to deliver the coup de grace, notably in LIFEBOAT.
Critics generally dismissing GOD'S POCKET are clearly entitled to their opinions, but miss the point. Like the great B movies of the '40s and '50s (including films noirs), many of which have lived on to entertain future generations of movie buffs who have little time or patience for the big-budget blockbusters (and Oscar-bait) of that era, Slattery has crafted a character-driven, idiosyncratic entertainment that is out of step with current trends.
It is easy to criticize and lampoon the mainstream sellouts of the Michael Bay persuasion, but as a long-time film fanatic and former professional critic I am more militantly opposed to the recent wave of all-flash/no-substance "visionaries" (I truly hate that trailer cliché) dominant today. Bloated junk like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET = big box office and mindless raves/Oscar noms, but is embarrassing and nearly unwatchable. How can a film historian like Scorsese ignore the famous warnings of Frank Capra's autobiography (where he explained why he retired from directing after suffering at the hands of overly powerful actors in charge like Glenn Ford and Frank Sinatra) and end up grinding out padded and tiresome Leonardo DiCaprio vehicles? Could it be the almighty dollar, or does the maestro merely fancy himself as an American Visconti?
At any rate, I hope Slattery does not go this route (Scorsese's decline from gritty, effective early films to elephantine latter-day projects repeats the great Otto Preminger's similar career missteps), and instead maintains his personal approach. The man's talented and perfectly capable of making an Eastwood-esque transition from actor to successful director.