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God's Pocket

Philip Seymour Hoffman was 46 when he died a few months ago, which means he might well have given us 30 more performances had his life run its normal span. They probably wouldn’t all be gems—I won’t sit through the upcoming Hunger Games sequels only to see him. But that he was still working at the top of his game is demonstrated in God’s Pocket, one of two films he made that were unreleased at the time of his death. (The last, A Most Wanted Man, comes out in late July.)

He stars as Mickey Scarpato, a small-time crook who lives in a gritty neighborhood of South Philadelphia. But he wasn’t born here, and that makes all the difference given that no one ever seems to get away from the place. As one local puts it, “Everyone here has stolen something from someone else, or set someone else’s house on fire.”

It’s based on the first novel by Pete Dexter, written when he was still working as a newspaper columnist. While working in Philly, he was badly beaten by a mob who took offense at a column he wrote. Something like that happens to a similar character here, though it’s hard to imagine that the alcoholic, lecherous, blocked newspaperman with an exaggerated sense of his own importance played here by Richard Jenkins is Dexter’s self-portrait.

God’s Pocket uses the death of Mickey’s stepson, a nasty little jerk mourned by no one but his mother, as a way to bang characters together. In movie terms that means getting actors to play off of each other, which is fine when you have a cast that includes, along with Hoffman and Jenkins, John Turturro as Mickey’s partner, Christina Hendricks as his wife, and Eddie Marsden as the neighborhood funeral director, incongruously known as “Smilin’ Jack.”

Dark-humored and reproving of cliches about the nobility of the poor, God’s Pocket has a terrific sense of place and juicy bits for its cast but struggles to find any overall purpose. Making his directorial debut, Mad Men co-star John Slattery seems to be hampered by fidelity to the book’s plot as well as film’s inherent inability to provide as much detail as the written page—and in the first book of a newspaper columnist turning to fiction, detail is everything.

Despite one sense of swift but unexpectedly gruesome violence, it’s worth seeing nonetheless for its bleak humor, its dialogue, and of course its performances. A loser who doesn’t even comprehend what he’s fighting against, Mickey isn’t a new kind of character in Hoffman’s gallery, but it’s one he did especially well.

Watch the trailer for God's Pocket

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