DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final film roles, stars as Mickey in "God's Pocket," the new movie directed by John Slattery. Slattery is famous for his role as Roger Sterling on TV's "Mad Men" and over the years has directed several episodes of that AMC series. He makes the transition to feature film directing with "God's Pocket" which he and Alex Metcalf adapted from the 1983 novel by Pete Dexter.
In addition to Philip Seymour Hoffman, "God's Pocket" features Richard Jenkins, John Turturro and Slattery's "Mad Men" costar Christina Hendricks. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The title "God's Pocket" is a play on a south Philadelphia neighborhood of row houses known as the Devil's Pocket, though nowadays residents and realtors think that's in bad taste. But Pete Dexter wrote his novel in the early '80s and considered it one of the country's scariest neighborhoods, rife with poverty and gangsterism and alcohol-fueled brutality.
Dexter doesn't write bleak sociological tragedies though. For years he was a Philadelphia Daily News columnist and his prose is hardboiled and morbidly funny. He is a nihilist. He never romanticizes the urban poor but his characters have many dimensions and they're hard to dislike.
Director John Slattery has adapted the novel with Alex Metcalf and gets the tone just right. The movie is horrifying but humanist and I laughed all the way through it. I had to laugh or I'd have cried in despair. And the actors are a treat. 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 widow, Jeanie, played by Christina Hendricks, but can't seem to make her happy. Jeanie's son, Leon is a near sociopath and early on gets 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, so Mickey - trying to please her - makes inquiries.
So does a well-known newspaper columnist, Shelburn, played by Richard Jenkins, a lush who's instantly smitten with Jeanie. The sodden sap thinks he can take her away from all this. The movie has the structure of a sick farce; Leon's death sets a lot of things in motion - maimings, shootings, beatings, even his corpse schlepped around in the back of a meat truck.
After Leon's body disappears from the funeral home and ends up in the middle of a busy street amidst a lot of steaks, Jeanie wakes Mickey up by beating him with a newspaper.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOD'S POCKET")
CHRISTINA HENDRICKS: (as Jeanie) It's in the paper.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (as Mickey) What?
HENDRICKS: (as Jeanie) That Leon was killed again.
HOFFMAN: (as Mickey) What? Why would they say that?
HENDRICKS: (as Jeanie) Because they found his body in the street! Why did they find his body in the street, Mickey?
HOFFMAN: (as Mickey) I didn't have the money to pay to bury Leon so I took the truck to Little Eddie's but his guy took it out and wrecked it and Leon fell out.
HENDRICKS: (as Jeanie) What? What?
HOFFMAN: (as Mickey) Leon was in the truck.
HENDRICKS: (as Jeanie) No. With the meat?
HOFFMAN: (as Mickey) He was separated from the meat. I knew that would upset you.
EDELSTEIN: Philip Seymour Hoffman is heartbreakingly great. He's very heavy. He looks awful - we know in hindsight what he was going through in the last months of his life but as an actor he's all there. His Mickey is morose, out of his element, often stewed. But Hoffman is alert and transparent. Mickey is groping toward some kind of meaning he can't see, and I suspect that Hoffman was too.
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 - in a kind of stupor - to the advances of the columnist Shelburn. She thinks he can help her. In Dexter's book she makes some kind of sense but onscreen she's a blank. What saves the scenes with Shelburn is Richard Jenkins who gives the writer a touching obliviousness to his own dissolution.
I'm not sure where the character came from, whether it was based on a columnist Dexter knew, or was his worst case scenario of what he could become, but the man is both cringe-worthy and hilarious. Slattery's handling of the rest of the cast is wonderfully indulgent. John Turturro gives one of his best performances as Bird, a desperate but hopeful screwup, perilously in debt to mobsters.
Eddie Marsen is superbly clammy as the neighborhood funeral director, Smilin' Jack Moran, feral under his civilized veneer. The scenes in the local watering hole are pitch perfect. Slattery has been typecast over the years as WASP senators and businessmen, among them of course "Mad Men"'s Roger Sterling.
But he's actually an Irish Catholic kid from a big working class family and he treats the tribalism here with affection. Many people will find "God's Pocket" depressing, but once you get past the despair and carnage and, yes, it's a lot to get past, it's full of life. The saddest thing is the reminder that Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone. There's no consolation for that.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Coming up, I review two new TV entries in the horror genre - the Showtime series called "Penny Dreadful" and NBC's miniseries remake of "Rosemary's Baby." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.