John Slattery, best known for his role as the debonair “Mad Men” star Roger Sterling, makes the shift from actor to director with his feature length debut “God’s Pocket,” adapting (with co-writer Alex Metcalf) the novel by Peter Dexter (whose work was most recently brought to the screen as Lee Daniels’ deliriously gonzo “The Paperboy”). This isn’t Slattery’s first time sitting in the director’s chair, as the silver-haired star cut his teeth by handling five episodes of “Mad Men.” The results hinted at the presence of a confident storyteller capable of maintaining a delicate mood. Yet the promise shown in those entries makes it all the more disappointing that Slattery’s first feature is a disjointed mixture of screwball comedy and urban strife that never coalesce into a satisfying whole.
Philip Seymour Hoffman headlines a formidable roster of actors as Mickey Scarpano, a thief-with-a-heart-of-gold who lives in the titular Philadelphia neighborhood: God’s Pocket is a fictionalized strip teeming with violent crooks, grizzled barflies and hardworking Joe Sixpacks who are unified by their disdain for anyone who wasn’t born and raised in the community. Mickey isn’t a native, but his marriage to local girl Jeanie (fellow “Mad Men” regular Christina Hendricks, trading her strawberry locks for dark brown tresses) grants him a begrudging acceptance from his neighbors.
Mickey adores his beautiful wife, prompting him to put up with her repugnant son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones from “X-Men: First Class”), a psychotic punk whose awfulness is never acknowledged by his doting mother. The tenuous harmony of Mickey’s household quickly falls to shambles when Leon is killed at his factory job, and his co-workers tell the police that he was snuffed out in a freak accident by an unfastened shackle. Jeanie isn’t having any of this explanation, convinced that foul play was involved (although her certainty is never given enough justification to feel plausible). Mickey is left haplessly trying to pacify his mourning and angry wife, hustling the money he will need to give Leon a proper burial.
“God’s Pocket” casts a wide net of colorful characters and subplots that are all underdeveloped during its slim 88-minute runtime. But the film’s saving grace is that it can be pretty damn funny, particularly because Slattery shows a surprising knack for slapstick. The banter between Mickey and various locals consistently delivers — from the discussion of a racehorse faltering due to “vaginal complications” to Mickey verbally sparring with Jeanie’s disapproving sisters. Richard Jenkins scores the most laughs as a lecherous newspaper columnist who grew up in God’s Pocket and enjoys the perks of local celebrity. Guzzling a volume of booze that would make even Don Draper blush, Jenkins lends a pathetic charm to this self-serving alcoholic, who views himself as above the savagery of his hometown without realizing that he’s a blatant product of it. When he’s assigned to investigate Leon’s death, you know that no good will come of it.
However, the numerous belly laughs are undermined by jarring flashes of darkness that never feel organically implemented into the plot. Halfway through, we are treated to a violent gouging that will elicit an involuntary gasp from even the most stolid of moviegoers. Even more disorienting than the brutality of the gore is that it serves as the punch line to a stand-off played entirely for laughs. It’s one of the many sudden bursts of violence peppered throughout the farce, all of which point to the film’s central failure. Slattery attempts a balancing act of gallows humor and straight drama that never really gels; instead, “God’s Pocket” amounts to a hodgepodge of gags that range from clever to galling and moments of seriousness that border on the absurd.
Hoffman plays Mickey as a fundamentally decent man (despite jacking trucks for his day job) who is exhausted by his obligations. He hits his comedic cues niftily, but this is as minor a performance as it gets for one of the best actors working today. Hendricks is effectively melancholy as a mother mourning the loss of her only child, but her Jeanie is a frustrating cipher, sporting a poker face during the second half for no apparent reason. John Turturro has fun as Hoffman’s partner-in-crime, while Eddie Marsan fires off some of the best lines as the resident funeral director. The most affecting performance, though, belongs to Peter Gerety as McKenna, an impassioned bartender who provides the moral conscience of the whole neighborhood. Cinematographer Lance Acord (“Marie Antoinette,” “Where the Wild Things Are”) shoots the film in soft light contrasted with heavy shadows, an appropriate choice for a film where both light and dark sensibilities tussle for dominance with no clear winner.
Criticwire Grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Despite a mixed reception at Sundance, the name cast all but guarantees it will find a reasonably sized distributor for theatrical release. Still, word of mouth will remain mixed, so long-term theatrical prospects are limited.