Living in ‘God’s Pocket’ isn’t easy

Living in ‘God’s Pocket’ isn’t easy

The story of a neighborhood where everybody knows more than your name

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: John Turturro as “Bird” and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Mickey in “God’s Pocket”; Rating: R, Grade: B+

The first “read” of “God’s Pocket,” the feature-film directing debut of actor John Slattery (best known for his Emmy-nominated work on the television series “Mad Men”), is that the narrative contains a metaphor for the inner-working life within Hollywood. This ironically-named neighborhood is a down-to-the-bone period piece; an encapsulation of an undisclosed time and place where the working class denizens shuffle through their days on the clock until they punch out and settle on a barstool that is shaped and fitted to the specific contours of their butts. They know what goes on in both the public and private lives of those around them. There are no secrets, only things people decide to not talk about. And above all else, no matter how long you’ve been living in God’s Pocket, everyone will always remember – and remind you – if you’re not from God’s Pocket. Because if you’re from God’s Pocket, you never leave.

That sounds eerily like old Hollywood, the kind of place where open “scandals” could be blindly overlooked or kept “hush-hush,” to borrow a line from “LA Confidential,” although money and power maintained the order of the day, in the pre-reality and social media age. Now, with full and seemingly unlimited disclosure of secrets, nothing is hush-hush, but the speedy efficiency of the news cycle guarantees once the secret is out, it can be quickly forgotten as soon as the next bit of breaking news enters the feed. You just have to lower your head and keep moving.

Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) isn’t from God’s Pocket, but he’s secured a coveted identity among the regulars. He works with Arthur (John Turturro), a made guy nicknamed “Bird” who runs a racket, knocking off refrigerated meat trucks, butchering the gains and selling them in the neighborhood for small profits that go to pay off gambling debts and loans to higher ups, like Sal (Domenick Lombardozzi). Mickey’s also married to Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), a real looker with a crazy stepson named Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) who pops pills and shoots his mouth off alternately, rather than sticking to breathing through his mouth to stay alive.

When Leon winds up dead, whacked on the back of the head for mouthing off in front of a whole crew of guys at work (who, almost to a man, stick to the story of his death being an “accident”), it falls to Mickey to make things right, which means trying to figure out how to pay Smilin’ Jack (Eddie Marsan), the hot-tempered mortician and digging into the “accident” in order to appease his fragile wife. Things get further complicated due to the presence of Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), an alcoholic local columnist on his last legs assigned to look into the “accident” as well, but instead catches sight of Jeanie and figures she might be his last great scoop.

Slattery and co-screenwriter Alex Metcalf take Pete Dexter’s novel and richly realize the literary flourishes, rendering the twists in a routine fashion that feels utterly lived-in. What you have in “God’s Pocket” is a collection of characters, oddballs and abject losers, sure, but characters with a shred of dignity that matter to them and a willingness to stand up and fight when necessary. And, each and every performer in the cast finds and plays the one grace note in their character like a complex nuanced symphony. On the surface, this story, in the wrong hands, would have treated them like lint, but Slattery appreciates the colorful cast of characters inhabiting “God’s Pocket” are flawed creatures, but also beautifully human.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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