Blu-ray Review: God's Pocket (2014)

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In God’s Pocket, the mourning mother played by Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks relies on her maternal instinct in trusting that there’s much more to the “accidental” death of her son than the yarn being spun by his coworkers.

Moreover, just like the character embodied by Hendricks, her onscreen Mad costar (and occasional TV episode helmer) turned offscreen Pocket director John Slattery calls upon his background as an actor to construct several compelling scenes throughout his feature filmmaking debut, which he also co-wrote.

And fittingly not only are these moments masterfully crafted – paying homage to the works that had inspired him in the past on both stage and screen as Pocket salutes everyone from Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller to John Huston, Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes – but Slattery also infuses each with the opportunity to showcase the talents of his gifted ensemble cast.

Set in the eponymous working class Philadelphia neighborhood that’s tight-knit for all expect those who weren’t born and raised there – Pocket’s cast is headed up by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (who also served as a producer on the project) in one of his final performances.

A low level hood, Hoffman’s Mickey Scarpato can’t seem to please anyone regardless of how many shortcuts he takes and how hard he tries to fit into the surroundings he adopted when he married Hendricks’s local girl Jeanie.

A natural beauty that’s not unaware of her effect on men, Jeanie’s ability to use her feminine wiles to get her way and intuitive talent for reading people seems to stop right at her own home as she fails to see the sweet boy she raised for the bigoted, angry, violent young man he’s become.

In this saga filled with otherwise less than beautiful losers, the pulse of “the Pocket” is kept in check by the beautiful yet unapologetically blunt prose penned (and performed in a moving bookended voiceover) by Pocket native turned part-time newspaper columnist and full-time drunk Richard Shellburn (embodied by Richard Jenkins).

Anchored by Shellburn as the God-like narrator of God’s Pocket, Slattery’s character driven film gets the Dennis Lehane-like atmosphere, lower class accents, and pointless arguments of overworked working class residents right in what is ultimately a throwback to ‘70s blue collar era antihero cinema filled with men who looked more like your neighbors than matinee idol movie stars.

Unfortunately the decision to focus strongly on a writer as the voice of the piece only magnifies the problems of Pocket that started in the writing stage, given the way that from a narrative standpoint everything else goes utterly wrong.

While that alone shouldn’t have been enough to lose the audience as the ‘70s were filled with existentially ambiguous scripts handled with a greater understanding of what the filmmaker wanted to say, perhaps Pocket’s greatest problem is the absence of a traditional character arc in offering any sort of emotionally satisfying (or merely complete) follow-through for the grieving Jeanie.

Of course, the pointlessness of the actions of the Pocket natives near the end of the picture does leave us with philosophical idea that – like most of life’s “accidents” even ones wherein the nature of just how accidental they are is up for debate – there’s no rhyme or reason to the who, what, where and why other than just to be present in the here and now.

However, this thesis could’ve been proven in a far more compelling way than what’s presented on the screen since as it is, we’re puzzled what it was about Peter Dexter’s novel that made Slattery so eager to adapt it for his cinematic debut.

Despite this, with the cast in question, the character-driven action is enough to distract and even entertain its viewers here and there – particularly when you evaluate certain moments separately from the overall production.

But ultimately you get the sense both in the director’s commentary track as well as while watching the tonally uneven, structurally aimless feature that Slattery was so caught up by each dramatic moment on a performance level that he didn’t stop to question how well the sum of so many disjointed parts flowed together as a less than cohesive whole.

Often contradictory, Pocket confuses us as to what – if anything – it’s trying to say given how little sense the actions of its characters make. And this shortcoming is particularly disappointing given how otherwise effective a more coherent dialogue rewrite could’ve been in one of the film’s otherwise most ambitious sequences.

In a climactic Do the Right Thing fueled standoff, a key argument about the newsman’s right to generalize (and potentially trivialize or stereotype) the people he spent his life with is questioned by a man who will suddenly hold the opposite view he had two acts earlier in a scene of Mean Streets charged justice.

Namely, in public, Hoffman’s Mickey doubles back on a statement he made in private at a moment where everything that has happened screams for him to feel the opposite. And while admittedly on the one hand, I applaud Slattery’s refusal to signpost Pocket with an overt message, on the other, memorable performances by his charismatic cast of character actors isn’t enough to save this otherwise meaninglessly melancholic slice-of-life mixed with macabre dashes of dark humor.

Fortunately for viewers, the pace picks up from a walk to a jog through the seedy side of town roughly 35 or 40 minutes into the second half of the otherwise succinct 89 minute movie. Yet here’s hoping that the otherwise talented Slattery will take a cue from his Mad costar Hendricks’ character in his next time at the helm instead of serving up a cut-and-paste character study centered on less than beautiful blue collar losers (which in and of itself borders on the same generalization of which Jenkins’s reporter is accused).

Building off the strengths evidenced here in some dynamically staged moments, Slattery should trust in his role as a cinematic storyteller to paint us a complete and thorough picture rather than simply spinning a diverting yarn where the memorable scenes fall through its many loosely woven holes like change in a ripped pocket.

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