Director: John Slattery
Writer: John Slattery & Alex Metcalf (Novel: Peter Dexter)
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, Richard Jenkins
Release Date: January 17, 2014 (Sundance Film Festival) / May 9, 2014 (United States)
For all its virtues the mellow pacing and un-cinematic flair make God's Pocket feel like a TV movie at best. With a cast of this level you'll wish the writing would rise with it.
God's Pocket begins on the day of a funeral. The montage of grief is accompanied by a critical yet accepting description of the denizens that make up the titular town. God's Pocket is defined by its population and this dark comedy is more than willing to show us their working lives, back-room dealings and bedroom rendezvouses.
We primarily follow Mickey Scarpato during the days before his step-son's funeral. Mickey is played by the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Mickey quickly gets in over his head with funeral costs but places the challenge upon himself in order to let his wife mourn without worry. She's played by Christina Hendricks. Yeah, Mickey did pretty well for himself, but Hoffman plays him as a tired and troubled man who struggles to make ends meet, only now his ends have been tied to a dead body.
A run-through of the other lint found in God's Pocket: Richard Jenkins plays an alcoholic columnist and it's his "ode" to the town that bookends the film. John Turturro plays Mickey's friend and business partner, he's often hanging around the flower shop owned by his mother. Eddie Marsen plays Smilin' Jack Moran, he runs the funeral home and will be the first to express his remorse while leading you to the most expensive casket on the showroom floor. Caleb Landry Jones plays Leon, Mickey's step-son, and spends more of the movie playing dead than alive. Aside from Christina "Bombshell" Hendricks you'll notice its a cast of remarkably normal-looking people. Anything else would have been a distraction and this talented ensemble is the best feature of the film.
God's Pocket was adapted for the screen and directed by John Slattery, the silver-haired fox that many better know as Roger Sterling in Mad Men, which explains how Hendricks got onboard. Aside from directing a few episodes of the AMC original series this is his first gig in the chair. It's likely for this reason that God's Pocket feels like a pilot episode for a new series. In fact, it might be fun for audiences to think of it as such and guess wherever it might go from here. Mickey and his cohorts feel like Tony Soprano and friends before they were "made men," and the East Coast setting is more than enough to recall the legendary HBO show.
For the town itself they planted their tripods in Yonkers, New York. Slattery has related how they found many of the locations as is, such as the flower shop and funeral home wherein crucial scenes take place. Yonkers is used to nice effect to bring this unassuming period piece to life. There's a care to detail that's easy to overlook.
For all its virtues the mellow pacing and un-cinematic flair make God's Pocket feel like a TV movie at best. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, it will just might befuddle audiences who choose it for movie night. With a cast of this level you'll wish the writing would rise with it. Jenkin's articles are as uninspired as they are unflattering and its ultimately the same mind behind the film's script. The movie was a passion project for Slattery who fell in love with the Pete Dexter novel of the same name. He's been wanting to make into a film for years and it feels like some of that fire may have dwindled with the passage of time.
A quick word on the film's genre: You'll find it listed everywhere as a drama. A member of the audience brought this up to Sterling during the film's Q&A and he scoffed at the label. He has always seen the film as a comedy, albeit a rather morbid one. It's interesting how expectations of a genre can affect one's experience with a film. Just keep this other window of mood open should you seek the film out. And should you?
For Philip Seymour Hoffman fans (and I don't know of any cinephiles that aren't) this is a chance to see one of his great final performances. He attended the Sundance Film Festival where the film had its premiere just days before his death. God's Pocket might be worth your time for his involvement alone.