Pete Dexter sharpened his voice in the ‘70s as a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and went on to make a star columnist the butt of his 1983 book God’s Pocket — along with the columnist’s sentimental view of the working-class white urban poor as pure souls under dirty faces. Sentimentalizing the poor is a good way to get the shit kicked out of you, it turns out. The novel’s setting is a South Philly neighborhood in the ‘80s known as “God’s Pocket” (the real place is called “the Devil’s Pocket,” though that name isn’t too popular these days), and it’s insular and tribal, full of low-level gangsters and alkies and people just trying to stay alive. The novel isn’t bleak, though. Dexter’s prose is hard-boiled and morbidly funny. He likes (or at least respects) his characters’ humanity, and so does John Slattery — who has directed the new movie as a nihilistic farce featuring some of the best film actors alive.
And, in one case, alas, dead. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the hapless Mickey Scarpato, a trucker who mostly works for gangsters and is not a God’s Pocket native: He married a policeman’s bombshell widow, Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), but can’t seem to make her happy. When Jeanie’s grown son, Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), a borderline sociopath, gets himself killed on a construction job, the crime is covered up by workers protecting their own. But Jeanie knows in her heart it wasn’t an accident, and so Mickey — trying to please her — makes inquiries. So does a well-known columnist, Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins), a sodden lush who takes one look at Jeanie’s smooth face and lofty carriage and loses his mind with what he thinks is true love. The upshot is maimings, shootings, beatings, and even a corpse that’s schlepped around in the back of a meat truck. The movie is so dark you have to laugh. Or you ought to laugh if you want to be able to get up the next morning.
Slattery adapted the book with Alex Metcalf and gets the tone just right. The film is damnably amusing. The interiors are soupy green and yellow, tatty but lived-in, full of characters’ attempts to bring a little warmth (or faith) to their sad environment. The carnage is absurd. The movie clocks in at a lean 90 or so minutes, but he gives his actors room, so that you love these people in spite of their epic inadequacies. Hoffman in particular is heartbreakingly good. He’s very heavy and looks terrible — we know in hindsight what he was going through. His Mickey is morose, out of his element, often stewed. But Hoffman’s work is never blurry. Behind Mickey’s fog he’s alert, reactive, transparent. Mickey is groping toward something he can’t see, and so is Hoffman. When he’d fallen off the wagon and everything was coming apart, acting was his one remaining constant — his Higher Power.
I’m not sure where the character of Shelburn came from, whether it was based on a sorry columnist he knew or it was Dexter’s worst-case scenario for himself. (The killing of Leon that begins God’s Pocket comes straight from one of his columns.) Jenkins makes Shelburn a man who’s touchingly oblivious to how full of crap he is. The shreds of the writer’s talent are still visible, but the combination of all-day imbibing and a firm sense of entitlement means he no longer sees what’s in front of his face. “How long would it take you to get tired of having a celebrity around,” he moons to Jeanie as he drives her out to see a bit of rural land on which he wants to build their dream house. He doesn’t even notice that Jeanie is stone-faced.
The hole in God’s Pocket is Jeanie. The idea is that she’s so driven to find out who killed her only son that she acquiesces — catatonic — to Shelburn’s advances. She thinks (bizarrely, given his stupor) that he can accomplish what her husband can’t. The character is problematic in the book, where her motives are mixed: Part of her thinks she might actually make a life with Shelburn. Onscreen she simply doesn’t read. Is the problem the writing or Hendricks’s evidently limited range? It’s probably both (I still don’t know what Hendricks can do apart from her formidable Joan), but I’m loath to blame the actress.
Slattery’s handling of the rest of the cast is peerless. John Turturro gives one of his best performances as “Bird,” a tender screwup who lives with his aunt (Joyce Van Patten — mother of Slattery’s wife, Talia Balsam!) and is perilously in debt to a scary-mean mobster (Domenick Lombardozzi). Turturro’s mixture of sweaty desperation and hope is touching, and his yellow shirts (and car) are a howl. Eddie Marsen is perfection as the neighborhood funeral director, Smilin’ Jack Moran, palpably feral under his civilized veneer. The scenes in the local watering hole could not be better. I particularly loved Prudence Wright Holmes as the bar’s most garrulous alcoholic, given to God-blessings and daft, pickled pronouncements.
Slattery has been typecast over the years as WASP senators and businessmen, and he shows his mastery as one of TV’s sharpest specimens of WASP-rot, Mad Men’s Roger Sterling. But he’s actually an Irish Catholic kid from a big family; he grew up in the working-class part of Newton, Massachusetts. God’s Pocket is an ode to his roots. I’ve had a hard time understanding the many bad reviews by people who don’t get the humor and humanism of his (and Dexter’s) vision. In addition to the fact that most of them don’t read, modern critics can’t seem to handle micro-shifts in tone. They miss that there’s a unified vision. They’re as blind as Richard Shelburn but don’t have the excuse of being drunk as sin.