Mean Streets meets Weekend at Bernie's?
God's Pocket is a little bit Mean Streets, a little bit Weekend at Bernie's. As in early Scorsese films, working-class men in a big city on the East Coast swear a lot and are casually violent. And as in Weekend at Bernie's... well, I'll let you discover that on your own.
And you should. God's Pocket is a good movie, one that's worth seeing not only because it features memorable acting by the tragic drug casualty Philip Seymour Hoffman. There also is fine work by other prominent actors, including John Turturro, Richard Jenkins and Christina Hendricks, from Mad Men. The story, based on a 1983 novel by Pete Dexter, is an appealing amalgam of gritty urban drama and dark comedy. There are valuable insights about class, race, neighborhoods, newspaper journalism and the benefits of driving a refrigerated truck.
The film starts with a funeral. A fistfight breaks out. That's zany, and as I watched, I worried God's Pocket was going to be like Gigantic or The Good Heart, star-studded indie affairs in which characters act in ways that only nominally resemble real human behavior. But then the proceedings unfold, in a flashback, and by the end, the fistfight makes perfect sense.
Mickey (Hoffman), who drives that refrigerated truck, is married to Jeanie (Hendricks). They live in a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood, in the 1970s. Jeanie's brother Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) is an obnoxious bigot who angers the wrong guy at his factory job, and ends up dead. It falls to Mickey to raise the money for the burial, which is to be arranged by a funeral director named -- what else? -- Smilin' Jack (Eddie Marsan). Meanwhile, Mickey and a butcher friend (Turturro) steal a truckload of beef. Also meanwhile, an alcoholic newspaper columnist (Jenkins) looks into Leon's death and, somewhat more energetically, beds women he meets.
A film based on this material risks lapsing into cliché; it risks lapsing into warmed-over Scorsese. The success of God's Pocket owes in large part to its carefully calibrated tone. This is the feature directorial debut of John Slattery, who plays sly Roger Sterling on Mad Men. Slattery directed some Mad Men episodes, and I see traces of the series in the ensemble cast, the multithreaded storytelling, the gloomy humor, the moral ambiguity. Slattery also wrote the screenplay for God's Pocket, with Alex Metcalf.
This is understated work by Hoffman. His character tries to be a man of action, but mainly he is acted upon. He tries to do what is right, but he keeps making terrible choices along the way. It's not one of those Hoffman performances that, like the ones in Almost Famous and The Master, convey the joy of acting. It conveys exhaustion.