As the end of Mad Men hurtles distressingly towards us, it’s good to know that some of my favourites are already settling in to their post-advertising careers. John Slattery, having directed some of the best episodes of this iconic series, is almost certain to find his future in directing. God’s Pocket, his first feature film, is a promising debut – it’s not perfect, but the deftness of touch with character that made his Mad Men episodes so watchable has translated well to Pete Dexter’s tale of people struggling to make ends meet against a backdrop of low-rent mobbery.
This is, of course, one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last films and his performance here is a heartbreaking reminder of what we’ve lost. He’s Mickey Scarpato, an outsider to God’s Pocket, a small, insular district of Philadelphia where outsiders are always just that. Married to Jeannie (Christina Hendricks), the hottest girl in town, he’s lost track of how to communicate with her and is scratching out a living from dodgy meat deals. When his unpleasant stepson Leon is killed, Mickey goes into freefall and, unable to share or even comprehend Jeannie’s grief, he’s emotionally then physically shut out as her sisters close ranks to keep him at a distance. In the way that only real losers can, he manages to fuck everything up quite spectacularly from this point.
Hoffman is a sombre, lumbering presence and it’s hard to see him and not feel emotional, his portrayal of Mickey seems too close to real life at times. Those beautiful eyes, often red-rimmed and full of sorrow, tell a story that goes way beyond the character he’s playing and it’s impossible not to read a lot more into his performance than we might have if things had been different. It works for Mickey, he’s a sad, lost man well past his prime. But those heartbreaking moments when he’s struggling to make sense of the crap the world keeps throwing at him make for tough viewing.
Where God’s Pocket disappoints is when the black comedy turns to slapstick (the Weekend with Bernie scenes in particular hit an entirely wrong note). But what lifts it are the performances: Slattery is clearly skilled at getting the best out of a cast and there are great performances here from John Turturro, Richard Jenkins and Eddie Marsan as well as from the endearing shamble of drunks in the bar. And although Christina Hendricks does well with what she’s given, I wanted Jeannie to have a bit more spunk. Yes she’s hemmed in by grief, but it feels as if the film is happening around her – I wanted to understand how she got here, what hopes and dreams she’d abandoned on the way – and not least how she ended up married to Mickey. And I kind of wanted her to find her balls, I know she’s got some big ones.
Having said that, I enjoyed God’s Pocket, the ensemble playing, the excellent soundtrack and the faultless production design make this worth catching – along with one of the last chances to see one of the greatest actors of our time.