John Slattery’s “God’s Pocket” introduces various characters and plot strands but doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. It boasts an impressive cast, with the likes of Phillip Seymour Hoffman (in one of his last roles), John Turturro, Christina Hendricks and Richard Jenkins. While cinematographer Lance Accord gives the picture a naturalistic, at times noir-ish look. However the screenplay—by Slattery and Alex Metcalf, based on the book by Peter Dexter--doesn’t do an adequate job of developing the characters and overall, the story is half-baked and bland, resulting in the movie being underwhelming and pointless.
The film is set in the Philadelphia neighborhood God’s Pocket. It’s one of those dead-end blue-collar neighborhoods full of simple folk that are born and raised there and never leave. They work some manual labor job and then go to the local dank and dim bar and, in the words of one of the characters, “talk about things they don’t understand.” If the movie is about anything you can be sure of it’s that the world is a harsh unforgiving place. God’s Pocket is the kind of neighborhood where people will cover up a murder that’s blatantly taken place on a job site, or where the funeral home director will leave a cadaver outside in the pouring rain because he didn’t get his fee.
Oddly enough, both those things happen to Mickey (Hoffman) one way or the other. When we first meet him he’s in a lifeless marriage with a woman named Jeanie (Hendricks) and his involvement in illegal activities (gambling, stealing a meat truck, etc.) with his friend Arthur (John Turturro) seems to be his full time job. The trouble begins when Jeanie’s son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) is killed at a construction site. The workers cover it and Mickey makes funeral arrangements. However, Jeanie thinks something is up and wants answers; meanwhile, due to a gambling loss, Mickey has no money to bury his stepson. Poor Leon only has about five minutes of screen time but in that he’s shown as being a racist, ignorant, stubborn asshole that gets what he deserves.
The problems with “God’s Pocket” begin right away; why should we care whether this guy gets buried or not? And why should Mickey go through as much hassle as he does to do it? He’s his stepson after all and the two spend zero time together. Now you could say, “but he’s married to Jeanie so he’s doing it because he loves her.” Well the two of them spend practically no time together either, there’s no sign of a relationship between them and their individual characters aren’t fleshed out well enough to make us look past this.
At only ninety minutes, “God’s Pocket” is unbelievably short and could have easily benefited from being longer to allow for more character development and more story development. By the end, so little is accomplished. Jeanie’s decision to look for answers as to what happened to her son is never really followed through, and since we know what happened to Leon and also know that he’s a jerk, there’s no reason for the audience to care about any of it either. A subplot involving Arthur and his run-in with gangsters is barely developed and resolves abruptly and unsatisfyingly.
There’s also the character of Richard Shellburn (Jenkins) an alcoholic newspaper columnist who writes about the neighborhood (usually condescendingly) and who is asked to get to the bottom of Leon’s death. Again, like much of everything else, this isn’t followed through. And the character doesn’t serve much of a purpose, other than to be a depressed and sum up the movie’s themes in voice over (disguised in his newspaper columns). A romantic fling between him and Jeanie pretty much comes out of nowhere and doesn’t evolve into anything worthwhile either. The movie is full of flat characters and stories that don’t go anywhere.
The only plot strand that’s actually followed through is Mickey’s adventure (filled with much bad luck) in trying to come up with the money to give Leon a funeral. However, the film begins with said funeral so any chance at tension is immediately eliminated. All the actors give it their best shot, Hoffman gives a good unassuming performance and Jenkins is entertaining as a journalist who thinks he’s above everyone else. Though, they’re ultimately let down by a script desperately in need of a rewrite, or two.