You know John Slattery as resident “Mad Men” sharp wit and hedonist Roger Sterling. With the indie release “God’s Pocket,” Slattery parlays his sideline as an occasional director on the series into a feature-filmmaking debut.
The ’70s-set story opens with scenes of a funeral, and a voice-over paean to the hardscrabble Philadelphia neighborhood of the title. (The words are later revealed to be column prose from Richard Jenkins’s boozy newspaperman; the film is adapted from a book by novelist and onetime Philly columnist Pete Dexter.) “The working men of God’s Pocket are simple men — they work, they follow their teams, they marry and have children,” he says. Funny thing, though — for simple folk, these characters sure do lead complicated lives.
In one of his final roles, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Mickey Scarpato, part of a shabby ring of crooks — “mob” would be giving them far too much credit — whose typical criminal venture is stealing a truck full of butcher’s meat. Mickey is married to Jeanie (Slattery’s “Mad Men” castmate Christina Hendricks), who’s fine with their small-time world. That is, until Jeanie’s bad-seed kid from another relationship (Caleb Landry Jones) is killed at his construction job, and Jeanie rightly suspects he was murdered.
After that, it’s all headaches for Mickey. The wife demands answers, so he’s got to come up with some — but they’re tough to squeeze out of the local crowd, even with seedy connections like his pal Arthur (John Turturro). Mickey tries to take care of funeral arrangements, but his slimy mortician frenemy (Eddie Marsan) won’t cut him a break on the cost. Jeanie still doesn’t have those answers, so she moves on to plan B when Jenkins’s inquiring, handsy reporter comes calling about the story. The neighborhood dive bar takes up a funeral collection — and Arthur talks Mickey into pooling their money on a horse race, with predictable results.
There’s an entertaining bit of fun-with-lighting when the bartender (Peter Gerety), irked by some gossip mongering, angrily yells “last call” and flips on the bright bulbs — exposing everyone’s skeeviness, and the dinginess of their social default mode. Still, a fair amount of the film leaves you wondering about the categorizations it’s courted as a dark comedy. If the tag legitimately applies, then it takes Slattery a while to find his footing, if he ever really does. We’re halfway through the movie before a dustup at the mortician’s leaves Mickey carting his stepson’s corpse like “Weekend at Bernie’s” in a meat truck.
A brutal beating sequence based on Dexter’s personal experience just adds to the puzzlement. Best, probably, to appreciate the movie for what Slattery, Hoffman, and the cast do most effectively: craft a pervasive atmosphere of tired people trudging through tired circumstances that only seem to grow more, well, tiring.