God's Pocket (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

God’s Pocket (2014)

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Mickey's glory days as top dog are behind him.  If he's not getting drunk at the bar, he's disappointing his wife, or failing at his latest scheme.  When his stepson is killed in a suspicious construction accident the bit of power he has left is put to the test against reporters, police, and the local mob.  God's Pocket is directed by John Slattery (Mad Men's Roger Sterling) and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Just another sack of sadTimes have been so tough the last few years that even the criminal elite have descended to the income levels of your common street tough.  God's Pocket takes place after Tony Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last performances) had his fall from the big time and is reduced to desperately peddling truckloads of meat for whatever price he can fetch.  With the legit businesses sticking together there hasn't been as much room for a gangster of his stripes, so he's left sulking every day in bars and having depressing sex with his bored wife.  Sounds like a rollicking good time, 'eh?

If not rollicking, then possibly humorous, as God's Pocket is billed as a black comedy.  Hoffman is no stranger to the darker side of humor, but his tremendous acting ability tends to pull the features he is in more toward the drama than the laughs.   2002's tragicomedy Love Liza should have been ample proof of this, as the jokes were akin to half-hearted sighs of protest against slipping into total misery than anything worth a chuckle at.  Love Liza worked mostly because it stayed firmly in Hoffman's state of emotion and went down into the depraved gas huffing abyss with him.  God's Pocket is not as brave, nor is it working with material nearly as strong for Hoffman and the rest of the formidable past, and John Slattery's time on Mad Men shows that he knows the rough outline of slick portraits of existential frustration but not the skill to pull it off.

Flat is the word that came to mind throughout God's Pocket's many dramatic confrontations.  Everything is cleanly put together but there isn't a single sequence in the film that takes any kind of chance with the characters or images.  So while everyone is descending into their own personal hell the camera just sits patiently and waits for their emotional tantrum to be over before proceeding along to the next emotionally or physically violent breakdown.  Emotional distance is part of the point, as one of the story threads involves Richard Jenkins as a writer who made a living off of the pain of the neighborhood of God's Pocket and never got involved with the residence.  But that perspective only works for his character, and the same flat tone is present with Christina Hendricks as her gangster-wife character cries herself to oblivion.

Slattery's direction is crisp, tells you everything you need to know in a second, and aspires to nothing else.

Slattery's direction is crisp, tells you everything you need to know in a second, and aspires to nothing else.

Perhaps if the camera really was at God's perspective that kind of emotional approach would give a working sense of ironic distance from the misery of the characters.  But we're there in the grass as Hendricks has boring sex, Jenkins talks to a tape recorder by himself, or Hoffman's ever-deepening frown cuts into his face as his favored horse loses at the track.  This is where Slattery's time with Mad Men is most evident, as that show specializes in a sort of dry detachment that is both involved in the lives of the characters and still keeps a judging distance away from them.  But that is also one of the trickiest tones to pull off, it's a minor miracle Mad Men has for this long, and Slattery's crisp framing just isn't enough to pull off that kind of effect.

Slattery's aspirations to the mob boss meets Mad Men tale are laudable.  If anything, we could use that sort of ambition more often.  But that sort of dramatic distance fails the second time Hoffman is standing around looking increasingly sad while a maudlin tune plays on the soundtrack.  I didn't keep a running tally, but I believe this moment repeated itself a minimum of four times throughout the film.  If the goal is to perfect the distance between ironic and dramatic, the melancholy depression monologue with music to match is not the way to go.  Most of the time it's just cheesy but in some of the trickier emotional moments, like when Hoffman is dragging his stepson's corpse through the rain, it undercuts the drama to the point where it comes off as tone-deaf.

The tone of God's Pocket works best between Hendricks and Jenkins, who are both keeping themselves at a distance from one another.

The tone of God's Pocket works best between Hendricks and Jenkins, who are both pretending at emotions they barely feel.

So far I've discussed Slattery's direction at length, but not the performances of Hoffman and company.  Honestly, it's a shame that this is one of Hoffman's final films.  This isn't because he's bad in it, he's definitely the best part and when he's trying to remember what home he's in gives line-readings like, "It's the damnedest thing.  I can't remember which one is which," a subdued resonance that shows he would have absolutely slayed on Mad Men.  Aside from the two or three lines that Hoffman delivers perfectly, he's playing a role that's more of a sketch than a person, and has no on-screen evolution into something more.

Unfortunately, this applies to all the characters.  Hendricks plays a wife who is broken down at the start and the end.  John Turturro, another welcome face, tries to add some levity to the background but because of the stale direction comes off a forgotten ingredient to a different, livelier, film.  The only character who really escapes from the film intact is the writer played by Jenkins, at that's because he's so oblivious to his flash in the pan success that he doesn't recognize his limitations as a writer and suits the flat distancing of Slattery's direction.  If God's Pocket was refocused along those lines, with people who can barely put in the energy to pretend they're someone else, the dry presentation would have worked well.

As it stands, God's Pocket shows that assembling a cast of the most talented performers in cinema is still only part of a complex mechanism toward making a good film.  Slattery is a great performer and clearly cultivates great relationships with people in his line of business.  But, as many of the characters in God's Pocket learn, aspiring toward greatness does not mean you're equipped for it.

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Tail - God's PocketGod's Pocket (2014)

Directed by John Slattery.
Screenplay written by John Slattery and Alex Metcalf.
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, and Richard Jenkins.

Posted by Andrew

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