Tone is one of the most overlooked parts of the moviegoing experience. A video store may have been able to help guide patrons towards the genre they were in the mood for and, at best, would give them a glimmer of what they were in for. The Golden Globes are certainly no help, often confusing the balance of a filmmakers intention with an easy-to-read label likely to put off people when finally getting a look. John Slattery’s God’s Pocket is likely to provide the same kind of confusion. Alternately a working class crime drama infused with almost random bits of black comedy and ever greater shots of unrealistic silliness, the film becomes the very definition of a tonal mess.
“God’s Pocket” refers to a working-class neighborhood in South Philly where everyone knows one another and the local newspaper columnist only thinks he does. Despite a collection of swindlers, thieves and gangsters, the worst person in town seems to be Leon (Caleb Landry Jones), a young drugged-up factory worker who thinks it’s cute to spout racial slurs and brandish his knife on the job. Thankfully, he’s not long for this world, as the prologue tells us and we are witness to not long after. His mother (Christina Hendricks) believes this was no workplace accident, though her husband, Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is more interested in just making the funeral right rather than investigating.
Mickey is one of those aforementioned thieves, who along with his friend (John Turturro) and the owner of his debt (Domenick Lombardozzi) steal a refrigeration truck. This leads to the kind of complications that would be right at home in a Coen Brothers film, or an Elmore Leonard novel, but quickly throw off the film’s balance. There’s a tip on an horse, a flower shop collection that goes horribly awry and, worst of all, the dealings with the local funeral home manager, “Smilin'” Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan), that helps explain why someone would want to throw him down the stairs at one of his own services.
Worst of all is the constant appearance of Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins), the alcoholic newspaper columnist. Like the unwelcome outsider he is to the town uninterested in celebrating their flaws as the romantic everyman, Shelburn stops the film cold. Nevermore than when he takes a fancy to Mickey’s wife, an unnamed woman who may as well just be called Starebosom. Slattery, the director, does no favors to his Mad Men co-star with the kind of treatment that Joan Harris would have chided Roger Sterling for. She is all barren looks and tight clothing, which is probably enough for most mortal men, except Hendricks can never convey a true sense of grief, shock or vengeance to define her character, which makes her opening up to this drunken scallywag all the less sad and all the more aggravating.
When was the last time you could honestly say that Richard Jenkins was bad in a film? That is the level to which God’s Pocket sinks. Slattery’s inconsistent shifts directly fuse into Jenkins’ portrayal, and through no fault of the actor, he is a wild range of moral compass, sad sack, hooched-up buffoon and ladies man. It’s like watching everyone in the Mad Men office popping out of the stomach of John Carpenter’s The Thing. If one were to submit that God’s Pocket was simply a comedy and that everything was being played for laughs, that might forgive some of the film’s choices. Without a label though it exists as less than generic, as if we’re watching a high school production of Mystic River that they tried to turn into a musical, but ended up cutting out all the numbers.