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You gotta feel for Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the patron-saint of palookas in God’s Pocket, South Philly: he’s just pulled off a heist and been rewarded with a slab of raw beef at the exact time that his shithead, racist step-son, Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), gets himself killed in what may or may not have been a workplace accident. Mickey’s wife, Jeannie (Christina Hendricks) wants her beloved boy to have the best funeral possible but mercenary mortician Smilin’ Jack (Eddie Marsan) only takes cold, hard cash, which is in rather short supply for unlucky Mickey. He could go to his best buddy and fellow con man, Arthur (John Turturro), if only ol’ Arthur wasn’t the guy who stiffed Mickey with the beef in the first place. Arthur’s got plenty of his own debts all around town, however, and is in no mood to pony up for Leon’s coffin, although his cold-blooded aunt, Sophie (Joyce Van Patten), is just the kind of person you want on your side when the break-a-legs come calling. To put a cherry on his shit sundae, local legend/legendary drunk newspaper columnist Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins) is sniffing around both Leon’s workplace and his grieving mother…just the kind of trouble that Mickey needs when he’s just trying to get square with everyone. Ah, God’s Pocket…you cruel bastard, you…

There’s a lot going on in actor/first-time director John Slattery’s God’s Pocket (2014), maybe enough for a couple of films, although that seems a little odd considering the relatively short run-time. Nonetheless, Slattery, adapting Peter Dexter’s novel, crams in enough oddball characters, bleakly comic setpieces and shocking bursts of violence to ensure that we’re never bored, even if character motivations often seem as arbitrary as the whimsical hand of fate that so often flips poor Mickey the bird. God’s Pocket also bears the onus of being one of legendary actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final performances before his untimely death in February 2014. For this reason, alone, Slattery’s modest little noir-lite would deserve a watch: passing up any Hoffman performance is the dumbest of dumb moves. How does the actual film hold up, however, especially considering Slattery’s usually in front of the camera as Mad Men’s sleazy Roger Sterling, not behind it? Turns out, God’s Pocket isn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s just quirky enough to work, anchored by another massively impressive performance by Hoffman as a sad sack loser who just can’t quit losing, even as victory dangles so mercilessly close.

Slattery’s debut is a an actors showcase, above anything else, and there’s almost a laundry-list of great performers turning in some spirited performances. Turturro can (and does) do this kind of likable loser stuff in his sleep but there’s something particularly interesting about his Arthur, a thoroughly worthless mook who still manages to be the most loyal guy on the block, even as he repeatedly screws over Mickey. Marsan has rarely been as slimy as he is here: Smilin’ Jack has to be one of the nastiest, crassest individuals on Earth but it’s also impossible to tear your eyes off him. Caleb Landry Jones, so interesting in Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral (2012), really tears into the character of Leon: there’s nothing sympathetic or likable in his performance whatsoever…Leon is complete slime, from beginning to end, and Jones looks like he’s having a blast.

If I had any real issue with any of the performances, it would have to be with Hendricks and Jenkins. Although they both turn in some solid work here, I found them to be more than a little stagey, especially once Hendricks really lets loose in the film’s final third. I also admit that the subplot involving their relationship made no sense and served as a constant source of confusion for me: minus that inexplicable bit, I might have liked the individual performances a bit more but it always felt a bit off to me. I’ve enjoyed Hendricks in the few roles I’ve seen her in outside of Mad Men and wish that her Mad Men co-star had found a little more for her to do. To be honest, it would have been kind of cool to see Hendricks tear into the Sophie role, as it would have given her the opportunity to be more than dour and upset.

And then, of course, there’s Philip Seymour Hoffman. A tremendously varied actor, Hoffman was never relegated to just one type of performance or character: he could play everything from a nerd to a blue-collar Joe, from a saint to a sinner, and bring the same sense of lived-in verisimilitude to any and all of them. Here, he plays Mickey with a kind of roiling, seething frustration, a wide-eyed, lunkheaded refusal to accept that life is really this bad and that he really is that screwed. There are moments here, such as when Mickey finally kicks the shit out of Smilin’ Jack or the jaw-dropping meat truck crash, that easily rank with Hoffman’s best work. At his best, Hoffman was an effortless mimic and there’s nothing about his portrayal of Mickey Scarpato that feels inauthentic in the slightest. This is a perfect example of a gifted actor bringing his A-game to a smaller production, treating the proceedings like this was the only game in town.

It’s a shame that Slattery’s debut will probably be over-shadowed by Hoffman’s death, since it’s a really well-made film that deserves to be taken in on its own merits. From a production standpoint, Slattery hits all of the familiar notes but manages to imbue everything with an underlying sense of humor that really helps the grim proceedings. The script is tight and the film looks and sounds good: nothing here reinvents the wheel but it’s a pretty slick ride, nonetheless. Since this is one of Hoffman’s final performances, however, everything achieves a sort of shimmering mythology, almost as if the film is pulled from its modest perch to attain a slightly higher elevation than it might actually need. As a film, God’s Pocket is a modest, highly entertaining and exquisitely acted little character drama that throws a lot of elements at the wall, many of which stick. As a Philip Seymour Hoffman vehicle, however, it’s yet one more example of he’ll be so sorely missed.

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