God's Pocket: Sundance Review

GODS POCKET Sundance Film Still - H 2014

GODS POCKET Sundance Film Still - H 2014

A dark absurdist comedy that comes to half-life.

"Mad Men" star John Slattery makes his directorial feature debut with a black comedy starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christina Hendricks.

The absurdist black comedy drawn from daily life in a blue-collar Philadelphia neighborhood registers about half-way in God’s Pocket. Based on the first novel (1983) by Peter Dexter, whose The Paperboy got rather roughed up when it became a film two years ago, this first feature from Mad Men actor John Slattery only partly succeeds in its aim to derive outrageous humor from its hardscrabble setting, ultimately playing like a movie by the Coen Brothers directed with one arm tied behind their backs. Theatrical outlook is iffy, although it could go over nicely as an offbeat home screen special attraction.

Although part of a big city, the community referred to as God’s Pocket is an extremely insular one populated by tough types, mostly Italian, with perhaps some Irish, of whom it’s said that, “The only thing they can’t forgive is not being from God’s Pocket.” A partial exception is Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who’s accepted by virtue of his marriage to a local woman (Christina Hendricks) so immeasurably more attractive than anyone else there it’s a wonder she’s stuck around.

Mickey’s 22-year-old stepson has just died, a sad occasion to be sure, at least until we see that the kid was a reckless punk who brought his death on himself at a day-labor job where he racially taunted an old black worker and put a switchblade to his throat, whereupon the black man whacked him with a pipe. Instinctively pulling together in their clannish way, the many working stiff witnesses cover it up, telling police it was an accident.

Still, some are not satisfied. While Mickey spends the next couple of days conspicuously ignoring his wife while drinking and making arrangements for the burial, his pal (John Turturro) sends a couple of his goons over to the work site to find out what really went down. They end up wishing they hadn’t gone.

At the same time, the Pocket’s only real celebrity, a newspaper columnist (Richard Jenkins) equally famous for his prodigious boozing and the uncanny way he portrays the community in his stories, also begins to snoop around, especially by paying some very close personal attention to Mickey’s distressed wife.

Shooting in Yonkers, N.Y. and placing the action in what looks like the mid-to-late 1970s, Slattery, who has directed five episodes of Mad Men, does a solid job of conjuring the feel of a tight, insular neighborhood where everyone makes it their business to know about everyone else’s business. The houses, bars and work environments are all depressingly dingy to the edge of rot, a state undisguised by Lance Acord’s drabness-emphasizing cinematography.

However, the piece’s comic edge only slowly emerges, fully blooming only when the over-the-top violence and nutty cover-ups finally escalate. Just as the mourning mother unaccountably agrees to accompany the columnist on a boozy picnic out in the country just before her son is to be buried, Mickey is driving around town in a meat truck with the dead boy’s body in back with carcasses he’s trying to unload, while elsewhere a sweet little flower shop lady takes on two hoodlums who give her a hard time.

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It’s pretty easy to discern by this point the absurdist tone Slattery is trying to achieve, but one can only assume it was a learning process. In the event, the film only intermittently displays the snap, precision and stylistic smarts a mixed-tone project like this requires; a half-good effort is not enough where buoyancy and a sly-to-mean spiritedness are required at all times. What happens to Jenkins’s columnist near the end, when the citizens feel he’s betrayed them, represents a scary reflection of their announced dislike of outsiders (and echoes an incident that happened to Dexter and got him started as a novelist).

The cast of uniformly fine actors keeps things lively on a scene-by-scene basis.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Production: Park Pictures

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, Christina Hendricks, John Turturro, Caleb Landry Jones, Eddie Marsan, Joyce Van Patten, Peter Gerety, Domenick Lombardozzi, Molly Price, Bridget Barkan, Glenn Flesher, Arthur French

Director: John Slattery

Screenwriters: John Slattery, Alex Metcalf, based on the novel by Peter Dexter

Producers: John Slattery, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Ziff, Sam Bisbee, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Lance Acord

Executive producers: Wendy Nu, Mark Kamine, Michael Mailis, Galt Niederhoffer, Tom Valerio, Bill Perry, Frank Brenner, Stefan Sonnenfeld

Director of photography: Lance Acord

Production designer: Roshelle Berliner

Costume designer: Donna Zakowska

Editor: Tom McArdle

Music: Nathan Larson

88 minutes