Movie review

'God's Pocket': Philip Seymour Hoffman is great in a lousy movie

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Allow me to recommend the very nasty and, overall, rather terrible movie “God’s Pocket.” The reason to see it can be summed up in three words: Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’ll take whatever sad scraps of him are left.

'God’s Pocket'

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, John Turturro.

Rating: R for violence, pervasive language and sexual content.

The scrappy script at hand derives from a 1983 novel by Pete Dexter, the former Philadelphia Daily News columnist who specialized in tough tales of South Philly’s “dark underside” and the down-and-outers inhabiting it. The fictional neighborhood of God’s Pocket is a twist on the real one called Devil’s Pocket — it’s a toss-up as to which name is more ironic.

Suffice to say, as someone does, “Everyone here stole something from someone else. The only thing they can't forgive is not being from God's Pocket.” Lumpy, pot-bellied Mickey Scarpato — played by Hoffman — lives there with his too-beautiful wife Jean (Christina Hendricks) and her psychotic son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones). Mickey has a modest meat-truck business that’s somewhere between wholesale and retail. Leon works construction — until he’s killed in an on-site “accident.”

Nobody in the Pocket enclave is sorry to see him go except his distraught mother, who puts Mickey in charge of funeral arrangements and of finding out what really happened. There seems to be a code of silence about Leon’s demise.

Mild-mannered Mickey just wants to get Leon buried and stay a step ahead of his gambling debts, but those two goals collide: He borrows but then loses the money for Leon’s burial on a bad bet at the racetrack. Smilin' Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan), the cash-and-carry funeral director, repossesses Leon’s coffin and deposits the corpse in an alley.

Mickey’s refrigerated meat truck is going to come in handy.

His despondent wife, meanwhile, is going to be wooed by alcoholic columnist Richard Shelbourne (Richard Jenkins), a locally beloved Jimmy Breslin-type — “the only one who knows what it’s really like down here in the Pocket” — who’s doing a human-interest piece about the late Leon.

“I love this city and it loves me,” he says, a la Burt Lancaster as Walter Winchell in “Sweet Smell of Success,” holding forth at the Hollywood Bar — seediest blue-collar watering hole ever devised by God or the Devil, in or out of South Philadelphia.

Did I call Alex Metcalf’s screenplay scrappy? For a better adjective, remove the sibilant. The goal, I think, was to combine the “dirty realism” of Nathanael West or Raymond Carver with absurdist black comedy. And, indeed, there are some memorably funny moments: Mr. Marsan is hilarious as Smilin' Jack, the mortician, and John Turturro is a hoot as Mickey’s flower shop bookie pal Arthur, who provides disastrous “help” in the cover-up. So is Joyce Van Patten as Arthur’s Aunt Sophie, who blows away two thugs (leaving Arthur’s flower display case permanently blood-spattered).

And there’s no quibbling with veteran Mr. Jenkins — whose 60 films include three terrific ones for the Coen brothers and an Oscar-nominated performance in “The Visitor” — as the reptilian columnist, whose pompous epitaph for the worthless deceased kid is: “We owe Leon Hubbard an apology.”

But are we supposed to really empathize or just laugh at these despicable characters? When one of them plucks out another one’s eye? Oy. The yuks and the sudden jarring violence never sync. Director John Slattery lacks the necessary skills for such delicate black-comic balance, generally taking it all too Scorsese-seriously. His many Emmy nominations for “Mad Men” (and directing five episodes of that hit TV show) do not a feature-film director make.

This grim, seedy material (full of gross-out language) was not worthy of Hoffman — who, of course, loved to play such sleazy characters. He was so superb in “Owning Mahoney,” the truly great tale of a gambling addict. His Oscar-winning “Capote,” the terrific Paul Thomas Anderson film “The Master” and “A Late Quartet” are the finest examples of the quiet, charismatic intelligence behind his acting style — the tangible thought motivating his characters, devoid of histrionic or emotional excess. “Synecdoche, NY” and “Doubt” are my other favorites of his roles. (“Death of a Salesman” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” — on stage, not film — were his own.)

I’m still in the Kubler-Ross denial stage — not yet accepting the loss of the finest actor of his generation. In the hands of a fine director like Mr. Anderson, he was hypnotic. Left to his own devices by a rookie like Mr. Slattery, he’s still riveting.

Last films are always morbidly and disproportionately fascinating for their finality. We read a lot of fatalistic, prophetic stuff into them. For worse rather than better, “God’s Pocket” is a film by and about lowlifes. Like Brando, Clift, Steiger, Monroe and all the great ones — Philip Seymour Hoffman was at the mercy of his material, his director and, above all, his private demons.

Opens today at the Harris Theater, Downtown.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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