It is no disrespect to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman to say that he was often difficult to look at on screen; his lack of vanity saw him embracing schlubby, disheveled, or out-and-out gross characters.
Hoffman’s February death left a few projects still awaiting release, of which “God’s Pocket” is the first to hit theaters. True to form, he looks terrible in it.
But does he inhabit his role with his customary uncanny veracity? He does. In this adaptation of a Pete Dexter novel, Hoffman plays Mickey Scarpato, a flabby working-class mug in a careworn Philly neighborhood called God’s Pocket. (The time period seems to be the early 1980s.)
Mickey is married to the unsatisfied Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), whose appalling son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) from a previous marriage is truly the lint in God’s pocket. When this creep is killed at a construction site, the mysterious death raises the curiosity of gangsters and a famous newspaper columnist (Richard Jenkins).
If the latter can stop drinking himself in the direction of oblivion and shagging newspaper groupies (wait, those exist?) he might stumble on something significant. He might even get a crush on Jeanie.
“God’s Pocket” director John Slattery is best at prowling the streets and alleys of the neighborhood, which is so insular even a regular Joe like Mickey can’t ever be fully accepted because he isn’t from there. We’re told this is significant, but it doesn’t seem to matter all that much to hapless Mickey.
There’s good local color, especially with John Turturro’s butcher (or whatever he is — everybody’s got a shady sideline), Eddie Marsan’s venal undertaker, and various barflies and construction workers. Also, veteran actress Joyce Van Patten nails a very brief turn (that’s how a pro does it, folks). Those performances reflect on Slattery’s taste with actors; he’s an actor himself, best known for his impeccable turn as the white-haired devil Roger Sterling on “Mad Men.”
None of which entirely brings the movie to life, or locates its reason for being. These other characters are vivid, and the sad-dreamy Jenkins could take slouch into center stage. But where does that leave Mickey?
Hoffman, leading with his beer gut and reacting to each new disaster with head-down resignation, is unquestionably that guy. But he’s lost in the midst of the movie’s blue-collar bustle.
Everything here is trying just a little too hard to convince you of its authenticity. Everything except Philip Seymour Hoffman, who appeared to know a lot about disappointment and bad choices.
“God’s Pocket” 2 stars
“Mad Men” actor John Slattery directs this gritty look at the denizens of a blue-collar Philly neighborhood. Lots of local color in this adaptation of a Pete Dexter novel, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman leads a strong cast, yet the movie rarely finds a reason for being.
Rating: R, for violence, language
Opens: Friday at the Varsity Theater in Seattle.