Director: John Slattery
Writers: John Slattery, Alex Metcalf (screenplay), Pete Dexter (novel)
Stars: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, Christina Hendricks, John Turturro
Release date: August 8th, 2014
Distributor: IFC Films
Running time: 88 minutes
Best part: The arresting performances.
Worst part: The incoherent narrative.
Once upon a time in sunny-side-up Hollywood, acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese said: “There’s no such thing as simple. Simple is hard”. Positioned above all the philosophically viable quotes one can muster, these two short sentences achieve true purpose. In fact, Scorsese’s words describe the filmmaking process as a journey of unconscionable measure. So, how does all this relate to kooky crime-drama God’s Pocket?
Well, with Scorsese’s influence casting itself over everything, God’s Pocket tries too damn hard to be simple. Betwixt by its own elaborate sheen, the movie aims for succinct but lands just short of pretentious. With too much going on at once, the movie wholly relies on familiarity and grit. In fact, this type of simplicity makes for a confusing and unexacting tale of woe and whimsy. However, despite matching up to Scorsese’s quote, it’s still a halfway descent first effort. The story, such as it is, examines one man and his sketchy practices. An outsider to the titular Philadelphian district, small-time crook Mickey Scarpano (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) has found solace in his surroundings. Struggling to maintain his marriage to Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), Mickey looks to his mates, gambling, and alcohol for guidance. Floating through day-to-day life, the man runs errands with best mate Arthur ‘Bird’ Capezio (John Turturro) and mob enforcer Sal (Domenick Lombardozzi). Sadly, Mickey’s existence is hindered by his abrasive stepson Leon(Caleb Landry Jones)’s industrial accident. Along the way, whilst Mickey is arranging payment plans with funeral director Smilin’ Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan), Jeanie calls for an investigation into her son’s death.
Admittedly, I may’ve been a little harsh on God’s Pocket‘s overt modesty. The narrative’s low-stakes aura is, to a certain extent, refreshing compared to today’s big-budget offerings. Here, Mad Men star John Slattery slips past his TV series’ lavish world to pay homage to 1970s Middle America. Being Slattery’s first feature, his direction far eclipses his screenwriting. Co-written by Alex Metcalf, the screenplay takes to cliches and contrivances the way its characters take to booze and cigarettes. With several story-lines in play, Slattery and Metcalf throw in too many insufficient perspectives. After the dysfunctional family dynamic is introduced and deliberated on, we’re introduced to notorious God’s Pocket columnist Richard Shelburn(Richard Jenkins)’s peculiar lifestyle. Shelburn, an avatar for the novel’s author Pete Dexter, becomes an unnecessary antagonist in this free-wheeling narrative. In following the original material so closely, Slattery and Metcalf pick up and drop certain story-lines without warning. Infatuated with his own creation, Slattery gestates on certain plot-threads without giving them definitive beginnings, middles, or ends. In fact, several plot-lines are left wholly unanswered for. Despite the taut 88 minute run-time, the movie comes off like an underwhelming brawl between Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, and Ben Affleck’s directorial flourishes.
The working men of God’s Pocket are simple men. They work, marry, and have children. And, until recently, they die like everyone else.” (Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins), God’s Pocket).
Despite this hearty love letter’s overwhelming negatives, the final product’s positives reside in its all-around willingness to succeed. With Slattery paying respect to a long-lost era, his head and heart are certainly in the right place. In fact, thanks to emotional resonance and technical savvy, God’s Pocket achieves just enough to earn a low-3-star rating. Accustomed to period pieces, Slattery’s directorial motivations craft a rich, textured version of Middle America. The movie never screams out an exact date or time. If anything, this 70s-set crime-drama allows its audience to pick up certain nuances skidding across each frame. Depicting a horrific place to call home, Slattery’s version of God’s Pocket is defined by earthy colour palettes and specific iconography. Halfway through, you begin to notice the time period in all its glory. With browns, yellows, and greys amplifying certain scenes, Slattery depicts a world in which men are men and women succumb to those around them. Finding the ugliest of ugly folks, his attention to detail and taste for black comedy excel. In addition, Slattery draws dynamic performances from his talented ensemble. In one of his last roles, Hoffman delivers a mesmerising turn as the ultimate average Joe. In addition, Jenkins, Hendricks, and Turturro excel as downtrodden characters begging for justice and respect.
Stepping up to a blank canvas, Slattery makes a valiant first effort out of such broad material. Experimenting with specific stylistic choices, dealing specifically with its gritty veneer, this busting of the proverbial cherry could’ve been a helluva lot worse. However, unlike Mean Streets or Gone Baby Gone, this dissection of Middle America comes almost flatlines at opportune moments. If anything, Slattery would do well to sat back, relax, and reflect on the final few Mad Men episodes remaining.