“God’s Pocket” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:28, three stars out of four.
I’ve seen “God’s Pocket” twice now — the first time at the Sundance Film Festival, a couple of weeks before its star, Philip Seymour Hoffman, died of a drug overdose, and again three months later. The first time I thought it was a good movie. Now I think it’s essential.
It’s not even a top-shelf Hoffman performance, but just to see him work one more time (we’ll get another chance at the end of the summer with “A Most Wanted Man”) is electrifying. The way he carries his big frame, lumbering yet almost elegant, the way his expression can nudge so gently into one emotion or another, the way he can honor the truth of an unlikable sad-sack character and still make us feel for him. Damn it.
The movie around him in “God’s Pocket” is good too, a grimy gem of blue-collar fatalism from writer-director John Slattery, best known for playing Roger Sterling in “Mad Men.” Roger probably would never find his way to a place like God’s Pocket, a working-class neighborhood in South Philly, the kind where the locals drink in rust-stained bars with names like the Hollywood and the Uptown that are very far away from Hollywood or Uptown.
The year is 1978, and Hoffman is Mickey Scarpato, a sad-sack meat truck driver whose truck doesn’t even fit in his own garage. Occasionally the slabs of beef that find its way into his truck get there through less than honorable methods, with the help of his pal Arthur (John Turturro). It’s not really seen as a criminal enterprise; everybody does what they need to to get by in God’s Pocket. It’s just that nobody seems to be getting by.
The only good thing in Mickey’s life is his wife Jeanie (Christina Hendricks, also of “Mad Men”), who he hangs onto for dear life. Mickey isn’t from God’s Pocket, and you can see that he bears everything — the job, the town, the life — just to be with her.
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 placate an inconsolable Jeanie. Jeanie rightly suspects that her son did not die in an accident, and pushes Mickey to use his mob connections to find out what really happened.
“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. The movie is based on an early novel by Pete Dexter (“Paris Trout”) and the film captures Dexter’s grimly amused view of the human condition.
Other threads weave around his hapless travails, such as Turturro’s attempts to pay back a big debt to the mobster (Domenick Lombardozzi) running God’s Pocket. Watching over it all is the great Richard 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. With that heavyweight cast, led by the great Hoffman, I think he pretty much nails it.