Mickey Scarpato is having a bad week.
A barely employed trucker in the hardscrabble Philly neighborhood known as God's Pocket, Mickey hustles fast cash by working with low-level gangsters to steal sides of beef off delivery trucks. Mickey's friends owe him money, but they also owe the mob money—and the mob, of course, always comes first.
Mickey's got a wife, but she can hardly stand him. When the couple's sociopathic son is killed on a construction site, Mickey needs to scare up six grand for a coffin, in a hurry. Through a series of very unfortunate events, Mickey finds himself at a rock-bottom moment, bloodied and lying in a busy Philly intersection, surrounded by frozen meat and a corpse that's going to prompt some uncomfortable questions. How and why Mickey gets here provides the funny but thin narrative through-line on which the film hangs.
The film directing debut of veteran actor John Slattery (Mad Men
), God's Pocket
stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as Mickey, in one of the actor's last roles. Hoffman delivers a terrific, grim-faced performance that's densely packed and heavy as lead. A constellation of all-star actors orbit him, including Christina Hendricks as his wife Jeannie, John Turturro as his mobbed-up pal Bird and invaluable character actor Eddie Marsan as funeral director Smilin' Jack Moran.
The film is based on the 1983 novel by Pete Dexter
, which is in turn based on the writer's own experiences as a Philadelphia newspaper columnist. In particular, it’s based on the night he got beaten up by folks who didn’t care for his column. Richard Jenkins plays the role of the columnist, and his performance is by far the most interesting thing in the movie. An old-school newspaperman lush, Jenkins' character is so far gone into ego, whiskey and self-delusion that he can't even spot lethal danger anymore, until it's far too late.
As you might expect with Slattery behind the camera, God's Pocket
is an actor's film all the way. The performances are uniformly excellent, and individual scenes pulse with energy and authenticity. The characters speak a kind of no-bullshit Philly shorthand in which declarations are direct, requests are really demands and not a syllable is wasted.
The film is engaging on a scene-to-scene level, but focus is lost once you step back for the bigger picture. Slattery appears to be aiming for a tone of ultra-dry nihilistic comedy, like the Coen brothers minus their trademark black whimsy. This tone is achieved in spots, like when the seriously tough citizens of God's Pocket fight back against some hapless mob enforcers. But it's never successfully sustained, and the movie spends its lean 90 minutes toggling uneasily between hard grit and Sopranos
-style comic drama.
The movie sure does look cool, though, and Slattery effectively evokes a specific sense of time and place. Set in what appears to be the late ’70s or early ’80s, the film is drenched in sickly greens and yellows as the characters wander through dive bars, construction sites and their own decrepit homes.
As depicted here, the neighborhood of God's Pocket seems like the single most depressing place in the universe—so depressing that it goes right past being funny and into some deeper stratum of archetypal despair. In one moment of bone-dry humor, Mickey looks out of his window and finally tells himself the truth: "Man, I've got to get out of this place."