They call it “God’s Pocket.” A tough neighborhood, to be sure. By many lights, not a very good one.
“Everybody has stolen something from somebody else,” writes the alcoholic newspaper columnist (the great Richard Jenkins) about God’s Pocket. It’s a neighborhood where “they know who cheats at cards and who slaps his wife around.”
“The only thing they can’t forgive is not being from God’s Pocket.”
“God’s Pocket,” the movie, has two major distinctions. It’s the movie directorial debut of John Slattery, one of the two lead actors on “Mad Men” who looks like a male model (the other one, obviously, is Jon Hamm). The most important distinction of the film by far is that it’s the last movie starring role for Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose horrific recent drug overdose death seemed to catch the entire world up short.
There will be other Hoffman appearances in movies but, it seems, no more starring roles. He plays Mickey in “God’s Pocket,” a loser having a very bad day in the sort of dark comic way that makes for good serial barroom yarns.
There’s a certain kind of black comic story you hear in bars. Narratives seem to come to a kind of punch line pause when it’s time for someone to buy the next round. Crassness and insensitivity always make for good punch lines. Corpses of buddies that keep getting moved from one place to another often make for barroom tales. (There’s a classic drinker’s epic involving director Raoul Walsh and the well-traveled corpse of John Barrymore.)
That’s our story here – all of it turning around Mickey’s 23-year-old stepson Leon, by all odds the nastiest piece of lint in “God’s Pocket.” He’s a day laborer who liked to flash a razor at work and brag about the cool things he did to cats with it. He also liked to say racist things to an aged black co-worker and use his razor to threaten him.
And that precipitated a lead pipe to the skull and the permanent removal from God’s Pocket.
His beautiful mother (Christina Hendricks, Slattery’s buddy on “Mad Men”) is Mickey’s wife. She was utterly clueless about how rotten her son was.
She was the only one. In a neighborhood where everyone knows who slaps whom, it was common knowledge he was a Primo Creep. His loss is mourned for the family’s sake, not his own.
Meanwhile Mickey doesn’t lose his stool at the Hollywood bar every night. Nor does his pal (John Turturro) with debt problems. (“Twenty large,” he confesses.)
The tale takes them to wavering fortunes at the OTB. It also presents us with two mob thugs who try to outmuscle a construction boss and then an old lady, with escalatingly troublesome results.
And the wanderings of Leon’s corpse when funeral expenses become an issue.
There are some pretty good dark jokes here. Because it’s based on a story by novelist Pete Dexter, the alcoholic and lecherous journalist in the tale is an ambivalent combination of decent prose and growing degeneracy. He lines up his screwdrivers on the bar six at a time. By the time an evening’s over, his total has been 18.
A Temple University journalism grad is one bed partner for him. Mickey’s beautiful and needy wife in her hour of grief is another.
And when it’s all over, you remember that the worst thing in God’s Pocket is indeed not coming from God’s Pocket.
For a movie with such an exceptional cast and so much extra freight (Hoffman’s starring finale, Slattery’s directorial debut), it’s slight indeed. It’s the sort of barroom yarn that no one’s surprised to see really good actors perform in – and direct for their feature debut.
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, Christina Hendricks, John Turturro
Director: John Slattery
Running time: 88 minutes
Rating: R for sex, language and violence.
The Lowdown: A darkly comic look at a guy in a bad neighborhood who can’t seem to win for losing in life or at the OTB.