Sundance Film Festival: “God’s Pocket” is a great place to watch, but I wouldn’t want to live there

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“God’s Pocket” reminded me of a book of interconnected short stories, the kind where each is written is written from the perspective of a different character in the same town, and together their stories weave together into a larger narrative that only the reader sees all the angles of.

Later, I learned that writer-director John Slattery (best known as Roger on “Mad Men”) adapted an early novel from Pete Dexter (“The Paperboy,” “Paris Trout”), which makes even more sense. The movie shares with Dexter’s best work a grimly amused view of the human condition. Armed with an array of excellent character actors, including John Turturro, Eddie Marsan, Richard Jenkins and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role, it’s a grimy gem of a movie.

God’s Pocket is a real-life blue-collar town near Philadelphia, the kind where the locals drink in rust-stained bars like the Hollywood and the Uptown that are very far away from Hollywood or Uptown. Hoffman is Mickey, a sad-sack truck driver whose truck doesn’t even fit in his own garage, and occasionally does favors for the local mob like steal trucks with his pal xxx (John Turturro). Everybody does what they have to to get by in God’s Pocket, except nobody seems to get by.

Mickey’s stepson, the truly loathsome Leon, has just died under suspicious conditions at his work site, and Mickey is trying to arrange a funeral to appease his grieving wife (Christina Hendricks). “God’s Pocket” enters the room as a sort of American miserablist drama, but reveals its wicked black comic heart slowly, as Mickey’s efforts backfire spectacularly on him.

Other threads weave around his hapless efforts, such as Turturro’s efforts to pay back a big debt to the mobster running God’s Pocket. Watching over it all is the great Jenkins as a boozy Royko-esque newspaper columnist who writes barstool-poet paeans to the working-class folks he secretly despises. “Whatever they are is what they are,” he writes. “And the only thing they can’t forgive is not being from God’s Pocket.”

Slattery ably captures the insular world of such a forgotten neighborhood, both comforting and stifling, local pride increasing in diametrically opposing proportion to having anything to be proud of. He’s aiming for a very tricky tone here, taking care not to sneer at these people but not make Jenkins’ mistake of glorifying them either, and I think he pretty much nails it.

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