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The titular Philadelphia neighborhood in John Slattery’s directorial debut, God’s Pocket, is more of a character than its walkers-and-talkers. The crime drama’s hardscrabble location—along with its late-1970s setting—recalls the puts-you-there precision of genre siblings like Mystic River or Gone Baby Gone, both based on novels by Dennis Lehane. God’s Pocket was co-adapted by Slattery (Mad Men’s Roger Sterling) from a book by Peter Dexter, but if Dexter is as skilled a storyteller as Lehane, it’s not evident here.
Considering that the film features one of the last performances of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, the letdown is more than surface-deep. Hoffman plays Mickey, stepfather of Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), a racist, dirtbag day laborer who practices acting tough with his switchblade. When a co-worker Leon torments knocks him on the head with a pipe and kills him, his mother, Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), weeps while everyone else pretends to care. Leon’s supervisor tells the cops that a piece of equipment fell on him, but Jeanie doesn’t believe the story. She asks Mickey, a low-level crook, to nudge some of his ne’er-do-well friends to unearth the truth.
The increasingly puzzling plot and conflicts of God’s Pocket make it as frustrating as a romantic comedy whose running time would be cut to five minutes if only someone would get up on a chair and explain what happened. Emphasis is placed on the fact that Mickey isn’t from the we-take-care-of-our-own town; neither is an alcoholic and largely shunned reporter played by Richard Jenkins. (“Alcoholic” doesn’t really need to be stated, because nearly everybody is an alcoholic in this ’hood.) And though Mickey and Jeanie seem, in the opening scenes, to have a pleasant relationship, her sisters hate him, and it’s later implied that she’s not too fond of him, either. Guess Slattery skipped the chapter that explains why.
But the first-timer is good at channeling a time and place. God’s Pocket is set in an era in which reporters wore suits, there was a gin mill within stumbling distance of your house, and one person’s business was everybody’s, which could be heartwarming (like when bar patrons take up a collection for Leon’s funeral) or mortifying (being broke seemed to be more of an embarrassment in the “everyone will know!” days). The film has a dusty cinematographic tone, which dates it deeper still.
Just because you know where you are, though, doesn’t mean you’ll recognize the people living there. One character after another acts in ways that go beyond inconsistent into nonsensical territory. Hoffman leans on his schlubbiness effectively, but Mickey is too generic to make an impression, regardless of how well he’s brought to life. The dialogue is just as unnatural. (“It’s gettin’ cold,” Mickey tells the local mortician. “It’s a cold world,” he responds.) Slattery also goes heavy on the emotion-cueing soundtrack, using the same melancholy instrumental until it gets obtrusive. Midway through the film, while he’s drinking, Mickey says, “I gotta get the fuck outta here.” It’s unclear if he means the bar or the town, but viewers will surely think the same about the theater.