Think of Gotham City, or Lake Wobegon, or Eerie, Indiana, and what do those words signify? Are they dramatic evocations of each of those fictitious locales and, by extension, the lives of the characters who inhabit them? Or is a symbolic place name rarely anything other than a smug slap on the back for the self-regarding genius that is the Author-God?
Well, as per the universal truth which keeps the legal profession in such perennially booming business, there’s a case to be made for both points of view.
It would, for instance, take a braver writer than the one currently typing this review to defecate on the doorstep of Dylan Thomas, who set Under Milk Wood in the entirely made-up Welsh village of Llareggub. Equally (and to prolong the faecal analogies), when the substance of the work itself rings false, a symbolically named setting can feel rather like the crowning turd proudly planted atop a mountain of manure.
And if that be the yardstick by which we measure such things then God’s Pocket, the feature directorial debut of silver-haired Mad Men actor John Slattery, smells something very much like the 36 inches which make up the yard. Set in the titular Philadelphia neighbourhood, it’s a film which tries to balance an ultimately fruitless effort to say something truthful about life and relationships with a tedious strain of macabre slapstick well-familiar from some of Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch’s paler imitators.
The main players in Slattery’s movie are Mickey and Jeanie Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman and the director’s small screen co-star Christina Hendricks) and Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins). The latter is a big name newspaper columnist drinking himself to oblivion, the former are a blue collar couple in crisis; Mickey is barely capable of communicating with his wife, electing instead to expend his energies pursuing dubious money-making schemes with best bud Arthur (John Turturro), with these ranging from gambling to larceny.
When tragedy befalls Jeanie, she finds her husband mostly absent as usual. At the same time, Shellburn arrives in God’s Pocket, ostensibly in search of a scoop but actually seeking the light and warmth lacking from his life for so long. Mickey, meanwhile, has to balance the demands of making sure a funeral goes off without a hitch (we know from the film’s opening flash-forward that his efforts are doomed to failure) and trying to find out what really happened to Jeanie’s unclean little oik of a son, Leon (Caleb Landry Jones).
Now, that mini-synopsis might suggest an even balance between the story threads affecting the three central characters but in truth no such balance exists, with the trials of Jeanie and Shellburn afforded less attention than the tribulations foisted upon the luckless, mostly useless Mickey.
Of course the fact that it’s Hoffman’s presence which grips most keenly can, and quite possibly should, be at least partly attributed to the actor’s sad death in February, not long after he had supported God’s Pocket at its Sundance premiere. The knowledge that new performances from the Oscar-winner are an extremely limited resource impels us to cling all the tighter to the ones remaining – even if, as is the case here, the material might struggle to prove itself worthy of his commanding talents.
Certainly the depth Hoffman brings to ornery lump Mickey is delivered only intermittently elsewhere by Slattery and his co-writer Alex Metcalf (adapting Pete Dexter’s 1983 novel). Much of the movie is blighted by an irritatingly whimsical sense of events ‘just happening’, with the absurdity of the eye-gougings, shootings and car crashes seemingly supposed to say something about the nature of the world we live in. In actuality, the vacillation between violent farce and small town drama comes off like a fairly rubbish Twin Peaks riff.
In the credit column, cinematographer Lance Acord makes the most of the story’s late-70s setting to deliver some shots which are pictures of pure beauty in themselves; one of Jenkins’ face in a beat-down bar delivers an alchemical equilibrium of light, shadow and colour. On the flip-side (and even aside from the other shortcomings of God’s Pocket), Slattery manages to fall prey to a few of the time-worn traps associated with US indie film – for instance, the downtrodden wife being played by an international glamour-puss.
The end-result is a movie guilty of trying to pass off contrivance and cliché as something altogether more profound. How guilty? As guilty as Paddington is of wandering around with just the fabric of his flasher’s coat protecting the public from the sight of his hairy bear-balls.
Yes, THAT guilty.
God’s Pocket is released in the UK on 8 August