After Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, many people remarked to this effect: Even when he was in a film that wasn’t that good, his performance always was. That’s certainly the case with God’s Pocket, which leaves a lot of great actors floundering in a shallow, underdeveloped story.
The filmmakers don’t know what to do with any of the characters, but Hoffman remains a pillar of determination throughout. Playing Mickey, a part-time lowlife trying to arrange and pay for his adult stepson’s funeral, he uses his body and his eyes to portray a man who has resigned himself to mediocrity but is still trying to do what has to be done to please his wife (Christina Hendricks). Unfortunately, the film isn’t equal to the performance.
God’s Pocket has all the ingredients of a mischievous black comedy, but is neither sly nor merciless enough to embrace the absurdity of its tragedy. Mickey’s son’s death is untimely in that he was 23 years old, but timely in that he was a miserable, greasy little jackass who liked to threaten people with his pocket razor and harass black people with racist remarks. Caleb Landry Jones has a handful of early scenes that are entirely devoted to making this guy a detestable little twerp. Yet once all the work has been done to make sure no one will be sad about his passing, there’s no effort to make it pay off—no meditation on what it means to lose an unlikable loved one, no laughter at his fate.
John Slattery makes his feature directorial debut here, although he cut his teeth with some episodes of Mad Men. (He plays Roger Sterling on the show.) Slattery seems unsure of his tone, often moping through scenes that he should be reveling in. When a man is forced to carry his son’s corpse through rainy streets, it should be either heartbreaking or hilarious. Here it is neither.
The film’s inability to nail down its characters shows clearly in Richard Shellburn, played by Richard Jenkins. Painted as the poet of his adopted town, God’s Pocket, Shellburn writes soliloquies about the town’s way of life for the local newspaper—when he’s sober enough to make his deadline, that is. Everyone knows who he is, and his pseudo-philosophical scribbles apparently keep the newspaper in business. Since the town is allegedly made up of people with no thoughts or education, it’s unclear where he finds his audience. Ignore the implausible setup, and you’re still left with a mis-formed skeleton of a character whose arrogance creates zero tension until it abruptly becomes the film’s focal point.
Slattery’s favorite method of communication is to have the characters say exactly what we’re supposed to notice. In Shellburn’s opening voiceover, he says that the only thing God Pocket’s residents “can’t forgive is not being from God’s Pocket.” Then every character takes a moment to remind Mickey, “You aren’t from here.” The only thing that really seems to identify the people of God’s Pocket is that they love to tell people that they aren’t from there.
God’s Pocket is meant to be some sort of satire of small-town life, but it’s so far off target it’s hard to say what its aim is. Slattery certainly tries to do interesting things, but rarely achieves the desired effect. He understands cinematic concepts, but his visual cues don’t mesh. One attempt to crosscut a character’s sex scene with another’s calamity results in neither event feeling particularly momentous. By the time God’s Pocket reaches its close—meandering back to the flash-forward opening scene—the shots of the characters mean little more than when it began. We may have visited, but we didn’t really get to know the place.
Writers: Alex Metcalf, John Slattery (based on the novel by Peter Dexter)
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, Richard Jenkins, John Turturro, Eddie Marsan, Caleb Landry Jones and Jack O’Connell
Release Date: May 9, 2014