God’s Pocket with Philip Seymour Hoffman – Day Eight at the Sarasota Film Festival

Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Richard Jenkins, and Christina Hendricks are the big names who go small town and small time with in God’s Pocket – the debut feature film directorial effort by John Slattery (Mad Men, The Adjustment Bureau). God’s Pocket is not really a small town. Rather it is just a rundown and ugly section of mean streets in Philadelphia which can be more accurately be described as a neighborhood.

Richard Jenkins portrays the newspaper columnist Richard Shelburn in the local paper, and we open with him doing a voice over at a funeral. We get a look at the townsfolk, a sorry-looking bunch,  attending said funeral, and, as they are exiting, a fight breaks out. The screen flashes a text: Three Days Earlier – so we know we are heading for a lengthy flashback of the events leading up to the funeral.

The deceased is one Leon Scarpato, the son of Jeannie Scarpato (Hendricks) who is the wife of Mickey Scarpato (Hoffman). He’s a low-level crook who will soon be participating in a small time heist of a meat delivery truck with his pal Arthur (Turturro) who needs to steal the truck to sell the meat as he’s 20K in debt to Sal – the local bully, goon, and loan shark.

They pay off the driver of the meat truck – Here’s your money, go have a nice breakfast, and come back in not less than an hour. When the truck driver asks one too many questions he gets a punch in the gut which sends him to the ground. Then he gets a warning.

You have your job, and we have our job. Now take the money and go have breakfast.

Meanwhile, Leon, on the job at a construction site, runs his foul mouth, flashes a knife far too often, and eventually nicks some one with it. Moments later his head and a piece of pipe wielded by the man Leon nicked, and called the N-word, collide, and Leon will soon be pronounced dead at the scene by the medics.

This is God’s Pocket and since it is a small neighborhood (or enclave), the construction guys all band together and tell the cops that it was a construction accident. They say Leon was hit by the swinging cable and hook apparatus of a large crane.

That’s a pretty brazen lie, and it shows us, if nothing else, the solidarity of the people of God’s Pocket. After all, Leon wasn’t much of a person. No one really liked him. But the construction guys are going to do their best to protect one of their own.

From there, we go straight downhill (figuratively speaking of course). There’s not enough money in Mickey to afford the kind of funeral that he thinks Jeannie wants. There’s plenty of drinking at the local pub – called The Hollywood with Peter Gerety (Homicide: Life on the Street) as bar owner and bartender. The bar clients chip in $1400 and change to help Mickey. But the funeral director Smiling Jack played by a great Eddie Marsan, is a real sleaze bag, and won’t really work with Mickey on the costs. So other measures are needed.

There’s robbery that goes bad. A scene at the local OTB, Shelburn – a really despicable drunkard, writes about Leon’s death inaccurately. We know why Shelburn drinks – he’s burned out, hates himself, and his job, and would rather be writing the Great American Novel – but he can’t – so he drinks, that is when he’s not sleeping with some recent Temple University college grad, and suffering from erectile dysfunction.

But Shelburn’s boss, the newspaper editor, gets some complaints about the inaccuracies in the piece about Leon, and so Shelburn is sent out in pursuit of the real truth. He arrives at the Scarpato’s home, and with one look at Jeannie, Shelburn loses what little decency he ever had, as he’s now no longer in pursuit of the truth, now he’s in lust, pursuing the married Jeannie.

As for Leon – well he’s going to become a corpse straight out of A Weekend at Bernie’s.

Hoffman as Mickey Scarpato in pursuit of the deceased Leon Scarpato in God's Pocket

Hoffman as Mickey Scarpato in pursuit of the deceased Leon Scarpato in God’s Pocket

Slattery has taken his shot at Dark Comedy and rather effectively succeeds in that single regard. But there’s not a single likeable character in the entire film. Each and every one of them is deeply flawed. The film is almost a serious of vignettes tied together loosely by Leon’s murder, alcoholism, Jeannie’s huge bust line, and Mickey’s desire to do the right thing only he’s hindered at every turn.

John Slattery directing God's Pocket

John Slattery directing God’s Pocket

The actors do fine – and that’s a strange thing to say as we don’t really like the characters. But some of what Slattery attempts with the script based on Peter Dexter’s novel is so far over-the-top that this film that reaches well beyond its grasp, or the abilities of the cast. An excellent descriptive label for the film could be “An absurdist black comedy that is so absurd and dark that it fails to reward the viewer.”

Actor Richard Jenkins introduces God's Pocket at the Sarasota Opera House at the screening.

Actor Richard Jenkins introduces God’s Pocket at the Sarasota Opera House at the screening.

These streets of a Philadelphia neighborhood might be God’s Pocket to its denizens, and there, if you are a local – every one knows everything about every one (gossip is as ubiquitous here as cell phones are to folks in the movie industry – but for the rest of us – once visited – you won’t want to return there. While this film will not be the last time we see Philip Seymour Hoffman in a new film, this one won’t add any luster or accolades to his excellent career.

Three point zero out of five, and I suspect that rating is being overly generous.

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